WASHINGTON — They cashed out retirement funds to build their business during the 2008 presidential campaign. Now they have 3,000 jack-in-the-boxes with smiling Barack Obama puppets inside — all sitting in a California warehouse, waiting to be sprung open for $29.95 apiece.
For Barack-in-the-Box creator Heather Courtney and her husband, David Manzo, the Obamamania that drove sales so fast they could barely keep up during the inauguration is over now. Sales have slowed to a "sporadic drizzle," the 36-year-old artist said, in part because the president's just not as popular.
"The sort of rock-star-making-history thing had its peak," Courtney said. "It seemed like people said 'That's all done now, let's get down to business."'
Back in January, it was nearly impossible to escape the Obama commercial boom. His image and words were on millions of T-shirts, posters and commemorative plates. Even Corporate America got in on the Obama blitz with PepsiCo and Swedish furniture store Ikea joining the chorus.
Approval ratings coming down
Then came the bailouts, the stimulus, the summer of health care hollering — all bringing Obama's approval rating down to about 50 percent — and simply the passage of time after any president's honeymoon.
The president's face still sells, though, according to souvenir shop owners in Washington and online retailers. They haven't turned their backs on Obama just yet.
At the Political Americana store across the street from the White House, there's a replica of the Oval Office to take your picture with a cardboard cutout of Obama for $5, and most of the merchandise still bears his name. The red, white and blue Obama "Hope" image that appeared on many campaign posters is still the most popular T-shirt, said Joe Caleb, one of the store's managers.
"The fact that he's the first African-American president, that's not going to change," he said. "People are buying it based on a token of history."
Sales have slowed considerably from the inauguration, when a line of customers snaked around the corner. But there's still a steady flow of tourists — many who have just visited the Obama White House.
"I just love hearing his voice," said Andrea Sahn, 58, of Ridgefield, Conn., when she heard an Obama speech played in the shop during a visit to the nation's capital.
‘They were tearing him up’
But the mood can change overnight. On Sept. 12, the store's other location on Pennsylvania Avenue had to bring a usually popular sidewalk cardboard cutout of Obama inside as thousands of protesters crowded the street.
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"They were tearing him up," Caleb said. The only posters selling that day were ones the protesters could draw on to show their distaste.
Kathy Kelly, a Republican from Starkville, Miss., recently visited the shop and found only a few trinkets to suit her political tastes, including a "Friends Don't Let Friends Vote Democrat" mug. She said she wouldn't mind finding an anti-Obama store because the hype is "getting tired."
Not so, says another souvenir store manager in Washington, where 80 percent of the merchandise is still all Obama. The "Inaugural Superstore" was supposed to be a temporary fixture on 7th Street but stayed open indefinitely because sales remained strong.
Some of the more irreverent shirts sell best, said manager Aisha Williams. There's the "Obama is my Home Boy" shirts or Obama as "The Soul Brotha," fashioned after "The Godfather" movie poster. Obama condoms come with the message "Hope is Not a Form of Protection."
"It's a different vibe," she said. "We get a lot of overseas tourists, and they're not concerned with his popularity."
Rise in anti-Obama sales
For one day only — the recent "tea party" protest against the president's economic and health care agenda — the store brought in some anti-Obama T-shirts.
That's been the biggest shift in Obama merchandising — the rise of anti-Obama sales in recent months.
Online retailer CafePress.com, where users can make and sell their own shirt designs, saw anti-Obama sales boom since June.
"When it comes to political or pop culture we can become somewhat of a barometer of what's going on in the world," said Amy Maniatis, vice president of marketing for CafePress. "Our T-shirt sales now are much more reflective of the opinion polls — about 50-50 pro vs. con."
The numbers were in Obama's favor 99-to-1 during the inauguration. Still, even on his worst days, Obama's support measured in T-shirt sales hasn't fallen below the best days of President George W. Bush's popularity, she said.
"For the first time, wearing a T-shirt with the president on it was really hip," Maniatis said. "That hadn't happened in a long time."
Millions in political sales
The site raked in more than $20 million in political sales last year, thanks mostly to Obama. It now carries about 3 million different Obama designs — with about 2 million singing the president's praises and 1 million making fun of him.
Socialist and communist themes are most popular, such as "Obamunism" and "Comrade Obama." And in one night, "You Lie!" became a big-selling T-shirt topic after South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson let loose on Obama during his speech to Congress about health care.
There are still spikes in Obamamania, as well. The first family's vacation at Martha's Vineyard brought a slew of Obama tchotchkes to the Massachusetts island, some showing first dog Bo instead of the president.
That keeps hope alive, at least for Barack-in-the-Box creator Courtney, that people will still want to buy her collector's item and that she can finally turn a profit from the business she expanded by emptying her 401(k).
"I know the tides are going to turn for Obama merchandise again," she said. "The holidays are coming back around."
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