01.25.11

Obama Wins Velma Hart Back with SOTU Speech

Velma Hart triggered a media storm last fall when she told the president she was "exhausted" from defending him. Tonight, she tells The Daily Beast's Eve Conant what Obama can say to get her back on his side.

Velma Hart triggered a media storm last fall when she told the president she was “exhausted” from defending him, as her family struggled financially. Hart, who has since lost her job, spoke with The Daily Beast’s Eve Conant about how Obama’s State of Union won back her confidence. Plus, more Daily Beast contributors weigh in on the speech.

Velma Hart didn’t want to become a media darling for telling the president she was “exhausted” with him last September at a televised town-hall meeting. She’s a “staunch” supporter, she says, both then and now. But her concerns about the dark place the recession might be taking her family resonated with Americans—both supporters and foes of the president. She feels her fundamental question, however, got lost in the debate, which was simply: “Is this my new reality?”

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Velma Hart's TV appearance triggered a media storm.

At this point, unfortunately, she doesn’t need Obama to answer that part. Hart was “ riffed” (laid off due to a “Reduction in Force”) last November from her job as the chief financial officer for AMVETS, a veterans-services organization in Maryland, squarely turning her fears into a concrete new reality. So strike that question off the list. “I’ve also come to appreciate that no one can answer that question now, there is just too much turbulence in the economy for anyone to really know what will happen,” she says.

But that doesn’t mean she still wasn’t hoping for Obama to address her questions and concerns on Tuesday, even if she was just watching the State of the Union on television like the rest of us.

Hart says economic trends seem to indicate “he might be a little more right than wrong, but those trends have been a little slow to reach Main Street.” So she was hoping he’d address “how that change can move a little faster” to reach people like her—a laid-off parent of two teenage girls and Desert Storm vet who has been looking for work since November.

“What would be really cool,” she added, “would be if he talks about what we can do to help.” She said that after her town-hall comments, a friend sent her a message that read “Chaos or Collaboration. Which do you want to be a part of?” Her answer is collaboration. She says as citizens “we all have a role” in making things better, but needs guidance on how to do that.

Photos: The State of the Union

Watching the State of the Union on television, she found reason for optimism, and even for a change in her parenting. “My youngest has wanted to be a teacher, that’s been her dream since she could walk and talk, and I’ve always steered her away from that,” she said. Hart has friends who have struggled as teachers, and she didn’t want the same for her child. But now she says she hopes that her daughter, an eighth-grader, will catch the window when education reform will have kicked in and will grant her opportunities a decade from now that don’t exist today. Hart had not expected Obama to talk about education, yet it was in that realm that he most affected her. “The idea that she could some day be considered—what did he call it—a ‘nation-builder’ as a teacher? That’s hot. I just love that.” She added, “I won’t discourage her from being a teacher anymore.”

In short: Obama passed the Velma Hart test. “He spoke plain to us, he told us the truth, what’s important, and how to move forward.”

Hart was impressed with his poise, and said, “it sounds maybe a little glib, but I was struck by how presidential he was.” He talked about the need to address illegal immigration and how he would not support any repeal of the health-care law, “but he did it without attacking anyone.”

That said, Hart found him so balanced that she realized, “I maybe expected him to be just a little more passionate.”

The asides to the audience caught her attention too. “They panned to the CEO of Corning Inc., which made me wonder—are they creating new jobs?” Obama’s mention of a 55-year-old woman who had recently returned to school to gain new skills “didn’t make me think of going back to school, but it made me feel good that the president is thinking of people who are trying to do the right thing.”

What she found most striking was Obama’s argument that the American people were adjusting to live within their means, and that they deserved a government who did the same. “Now that’s just poetic,” she said.

In short: Obama passed the Velma Hart test. “He spoke plain to us, he told us the truth, what’s important, and how to move forward.” But then what? “The real test is what happens tomorrow,” says Hart, concerned about when lawmakers go back to work. “Will compromise still be a dirty word?”

State of the Union 2011

Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.