They fell for Obama hard. But now doubts are setting in

In the first of a series marking the anniversary of Barack Obama’s historic victory, voters in Nevada, who played a key role in helping him take office, reveal why support for America’s first black president is drying up in the desert
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The Independent US

Lonnie Garbiso, a stylist at the Euphoria beauty shop in Henderson, Nevada, nods towards his boss at the reception counter and admits that at times recently she has had to scold him for talking politics with his customers. But the things they have been saying about President Barack Obama lately, he just can't help it.

"I'm 50 years old and I'm entitled," Garbiso says, taking a break from dyeing, teasing and snipping the locks of the local ladies. "I am standing up for the man. I think it's time to leave him alone. What's it been, a year? Give the man a chance. If people could stand by him a bit more, it would really help."

The pony-tailed Garbiso, who is half American-Indian, half Hispanic, is seeing the same shift that other Democrats here in Nevada and across the country are. As Mr Obama approaches the first anniversary next Wednesday of his inauguration, he is no longer walking on electoral water. From a high shortly after the inauguration of almost 70 per cent, his approval ratings are now at 50 per cent or even less.

It may be especially visible in those states that had traditionally voted Republican in presidential races but which turned Democrat blue in 2008, such as Nevada. Even the normally conservative congressional district that encompasses Henderson plumped for Obama over John McCain. Populated by Republicans, Democrats and Independents in almost equal numbers, the district is in a more sombre mood now.

Maybe the shift was inevitable given the sky-high expectations of Obama when he climbed the West steps of the US Congress last January and took the oath of office. But now it is hurting him, and the rest of the party. Ask Dina Titus, the first-time Congresswoman who rode Obama fever in 2008 to win this seat that for many years had been Republican. Her chances of re-election this November now look slim.

Or ask the senior US Senator from Nevada who also happens to be the Senate Majority leader, Harry Reid. In a couple of weeks, President Obama will be here in southern Nevada attempting a rescue mission of sorts for his friend whose approval numbers continue to fall faster than confetti at a wedding.

How much a presidential visit will help Reid at this point remains to be seen. Nevada was once Exhibit A in the story of how Obama won the White House. All the constituencies that were critical to his victory nationally, voted for him by particularly wide margins here. He won the suburban vote in Nevada by 21 points and the youth vote by 35 points. He beat McCain among first-time voters by 51 points.

But the tumbling prospects of Mr Reid, whose re-election looks in serious doubt, suggest that the Obama coalition is looking frayed at best. Jon Ralston, a prominent political commentator in Las Vegas, says Obama has "certainly suffered" in Nevada over the past year. "Most of the polls now show him losing among independents in the state," says Ralston. And it isn't just a Nevada problem. "It's happening across the country. People who turned towards Obama looking for change don't see change, so they are turning against him now. Is it something ephemeral or is it a long term shift? We don't know yet."

Obama's gains in the American West (California is always blue) were one of the big surprises of his election. But the disenchantment with him may now be deeper here than elsewhere. Cold winds are blowing in Nevada again, and in Colorado and New Mexico as well. A new NBC poll finds that his disapproval rating in the region is 53 per cent compared with 46 per cent nationally. Independent voters who tend to be conservative but who gave Obama the benefit of the doubt are hearing the message from Republicans (and Fox News) that government is ballooning under his watch, and the federal deficit, too.

Rocky Mountain voters were "enticed by leaders in the Democratic Party who promised something different. But now they're showing their true big-government colours and they don't wear well in the West," says Nicole McChesney, a Republican pollster in New Mexico.

An unscientific canvassing of voters here in Henderson does not reveal the stampede of erstwhile supporters away from Obama some polls suggest. But you hear the unease. "I think some people are upset by him because he is a multi-tasker," says Barbara Burns, 70, who is grocery-shopping. "And while he was just so nice in the beginning, he is finding out you can't be nice all the time."

Nick Gilberg, a wine merchant, has taken a few minutes to play the slots at the Green Valley Ranch Casino in Henderson. Far from the Vegas Strip, this resort caters more to Nevada locals than tourists. Just as his Triple Play machine spits out a $100 winning ticket, Gilberg tries to identify what it is about Obama that is worrying him. He voted for him, but is not entirely happy with how he has performed.

"It's partly the healthcare reform, because I think he has bitten off more than he can chew," he begins, before switching to Obama and foreign policy, expressing the misgivings shared by many liberals on his pursuit of wars. "For me on Afghanistan, he has just been over-zealous and aggressive. I think he decided to send all those extra troops in there too quickly. I would like to have seen a lot more planning."

Those conservatives who did not back Obama in the first place dislike him more than ever. "It's much worse than I ever expected," says Frank Mallinder, 64, a retired management consultant. "He is governing more from the left than I expected and there is much more incompetence than I feared." He gets hot under the collar about Obama's attempts to close Guantanamo Bay and bring the detainees to US soil for trial. "He worries more about what the rest of world thinks of us than about keeping us safe."

The forces working against Obama are strong. The healthcare debate has exposed a degree of partisan venom in Washington that the inauguration of a new President was meant to wash away. And the economy, though off its knees, remains stubbornly slow in delivering any kind of recovery that people on the ground can feel. Henderson still has a mostly prosperous feel, but elsewhere the hardship in Nevada is deep, with the state ranking second in the country in home foreclosures.

"We are confused at best," says Franklyn Verley, who has a daily talk- show on Power 88, a radio station that has been serving blacks in the Las Vegas area for 40 years. He is attending an "African American Friends of Harry Reid" lunch on Thursday with Donna Brazile, the TV commentator and former Al Gore campaign manager, as the keynote speaker. It's a poignant event because of the furore triggered about remarks attributed to Reid in a book about the 2008 race, saying that Obama had a good shot at the White House because of his relatively light skin tone and him not using the "negro dialect".

Verley looks across the crowded ballroom at the Las Vegas Culinary Institute, noting in particular the thick knot of women of a certain age all wearing red hats of various sizes and styles. They all belong to the Red Hat Ladies, a national association of older black women who, in this room at least, identify themselves as staunch supporters of Reid and of Obama. "It will be this community and the Hispanics who will bring him [Obama] through next time," Verley observers. "But he has to start doing what he is meant to be doing. He has got to do more on things like job creation." He predicts that the healthcare Bill, if and when it finally passes into law in February as the White House hopes, will help lift employment again.

The passage of the healthcare Bill after a tortuous process of negotiation in Washington may significantly change the political atmosphere, if not the economy in the short term. The struggles over the Bill and the roles played by Reid and the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, have contributed to Obama's sliding poll numbers, says Brad Coker, whose polling organisation, Mason-Dixon, last week gave Obama a 34 per cent favourable rating compared to 55 per cent last May.

Reid has 10 months to pull himself out of his funk; Obama has a bit longer before he must return to the people – 2012. But the President has a more urgent task: as reported in The Independent yesterday, the Democrats' hold on Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat is slipping. That is assuming Obama will want a second term, after the searing experience of serving. "If I were him, I wouldn't run again," says Lonnie Garbiso back in the beauty shop. "But I would vote for him again."

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