Image: President Barack Obama
Ron Sachs  /  Getty Images
President Barack Obama waves as he and his family return to the White House Sunday in Washington, DC. The first family was vacationing at Camp David.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 9/7/2009 12:34:45 PM ET 2009-09-07T16:34:45

They've heard it all before — the tanking economy, the bleeding of jobs, the creeping hardship that never seems to ebb. And the desperate hope that hangs over everything and whispers that maybe, just maybe, tomorrow might be a tiny bit better.

In the river valley where Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia meet, the anticipation of change never really goes away. Because of that, it seems, people still are willing to give Barack Obama a chance as he maneuvers through the murkiness of a nation in transformation.

"No one is feeling satisfied with the state of the country," Derek Duffee says from behind his coffee bar's counter in Pennsylvania's Washington. "I don't know if what he's doing will work, but he's trying," says Miyoshi Braxton, an Obama fan smoking on a park bench outside her downtown apartment building in Steubenville, Ohio.

‘He's the only one we've got’
And this from antique dealer and Obama skeptic Bob Yocum in Wheeling, W.Va., who is sticking with the president for now: "He's the only one we've got."

In a country of deep divisions and ideological extremes, impressions of Obama around here fall somewhere in the middle. Eight months into his presidency, he's not the hero who will fix all the problems, nor is he the villain who caused them. Instead, he is seen as a bridge that leads toward the country's next era — a guide into the new unknown.

He inherited two wars and a complicated recession and, while grappling with those, is trying to revamp the nation's health care and energy policies as he tackles a slew of other ambitious agenda items.

Complicating matters is public that both wants him to stanch the bleeding but is also, as always, skittish about true change. And he's is trying to do it all during a national transition that many fear could leave American dominance in doubt.

"He stepped into a time when there were probably the most problematic things going on," says Dan Moschetta, a 22-year-old recent college graduate from this southwestern Pennsylvania city, 260 miles west of the Washington where Obama lives. "If he could get to all the issues, I'd say he was Superman."

As Obama heads into an autumn filled with challenges as immense as the summer's, public opinion suggests both opportunity and political peril. Polls show people in the U.S. are split over how he's performing, and that's echoed in the voices of more than three dozen people in this ailing but resilient corridor.

Hard work, family and patriotism
Here, three politically different states come together: Democratic-tilting Pennsylvania, GOP-leaning West Virginia and the perennial swing state of Ohio. Once the country's economic engine, the area self-identifies strongly with hard work, family and patriotism.

It's also a place that first felt the United States' producing economy shift toward a consumer economy when steel mills, glass factories and pottery barns that dotted the Ohio River shut down in the 1970s, victims of globalization's birthing pangs.

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The way people around here feel is notable. This is a relatively conservative area that, at any other time, could reasonably be expected to reject a Democrat out of hand. And like elsewhere in America, patience is not natural in an instant-gratification society that tends to demand quick results from its leaders and to view politics in black and white.

Why the middle ground, then? Does it hint at a new flexibility? Or is it quintessential American optimism, tempered by the pragmatism of a country growing up? Are the nation's problems subverting knee-jerk politics?

Or perhaps this is a reflection of Obama himself as he straddles issue after issue with a management style that's both pragmatic and idealistic, but also leaves him open to criticism that he's failing to lead.

Also perhaps this: Facing the possibility of American decline, people may simply be at a loss for what to do — and looking, as so often before, to their president to guide them.

"This is really a whole new chapter in the state of America, and there's nothing we can do but keep doing what we're doing and hope it gets better," says Phil Axworthy, 58, a software developer taking a coffee break in Pittsburgh's Market Square.

"I'm scared," says college sophomore Mary Lesniewski, 19, as she reads a book on the green at Franciscan University in Steubenville. Will the country turn around by the time she graduates? "With the help of God, maybe," she says.

Both optimistic and pessimistic
People here manage to be at once optimistic and pessimistic. They say the country eventually will persevere and rebound. But they also say they're aren't as confident that the next generation will have it better than they do or that the United States will be as powerful as, say, China.

When it comes to Obama, they are wary but not ready to abandon him. They like him personally but are not embracing his policies. Yes, he inherited a country in chaos, but the troubles, they say, may be too great for him alone to reverse.

"Dude didn't do a lot of this mess," said Bill Marroulis, 53, a recently laid off security guard in Steubenville. But, he said, Obama may not solve all the problems while in office. "It may be the next president's time."

They worry that Obama's big-spending economic prescriptions are plunging the country deeper into debt — banking and automotive bailouts, the $787 billion stimulus law and even popular car-buying rebates. But they also say it may just work.

"I'm just afraid it's a Band-Aid," said Donna Schwinghammer, 54, the co-owner of a home decor shop in Washington, Pa. Later she added: "If the things that he's done to spark the economy do that and hold, I'll be the first to say he was right in what he did."

They seethe about the expansion of government. But they also shrug that the country got what it elected — a Democrat whose Senate voting record tilted to the left.

"The socialist approach of government solving all the problems and controlling industry and controlling finance, that's not the way to continued greatness," Peter Marx, 57, at his used bookstore in Steubenville. That said, Marx added: "He won."

‘He's steamrolling a little too fast’
They express confusion about sending more troops to Afghanistan, they don't get what Obama wants to do with health care and they worry he's taking on too much. But they are seeking explanations and giving him time. They also seem inclined to support him — even if they don't agree with him.

"I'm leery about all of this. He's steamrolling a little too fast to suit me," said Robert Pavilky, 65, as he rested under a tree outside of Centre Market in Wheeling. Still, he added: "I'm not sitting in judgment just yet."

This wait-and-see attitude is understandable given the public's uncertainty with an economy that shows signs of recovery one day and higher unemployment the next. And in the purely political sense, the time for measurable judgment comes next fall with the congressional elections, the first real measure of a new president's standing.

As Congress and Obama return from summer break this week, such lukewarm feelings are a double-edge sword for the president.

In his short tenure, he has had his share of victories — Sonia Sotomayor's smooth Supreme Court confirmation and quick passage of the economic stimulus measure, for example. He's also had his share of troubles, including a failed push for bipartisanship. And he has started to draw down troops in Iraq and boost American forces in Afghanistan.

‘I haven't seen much change’
Through it all, the country has caught glimpses of the kind of leader he is. But he remains largely undefined. Even in the areas where he's made progress — stabilizing the financial sector, for example — people aren't feeling it, so they necessarily aren't giving him any credit.

In the coming weeks, as Obama's strength is tested in his drives to overhaul health care and energy policies, he can cast himself as an agile leader able to exploit the country's incomplete take on him by shifting with the public's views. But in doing so, he also risks appearing calculating — a big problem for a president who promised to do things differently.

Ultimately, voters will either give Obama a pass because the problems are so great and the expectations for a quick turnaround so low, or they will dismiss him outright as just another say-one-thing-do-another politician. A bridge is of limited use, after all, if you're stuck in a long, dark tunnel with no end in sight.

"I haven't seen much change," said Mark Wheitendorf, 51, a golf pro from Westlake, Ohio, who didn't vote for Obama. Still, he added as he finished breakfast: "I hope he does well. He is the president."

In an eight-month-old presidency, it's too soon to say which way it will go. Or, as people around here say, cast any sort of judgment at all.

___

EDITOR'S NOTE — Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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