Voters: Mr. President, please fix America
Divided area of Virginia weighs in on Obama's presidency
The alternating red and blue yard signs are long gone, and people here have gone back to familiar rhythms of life. Long morning commutes, after school soccer games and maybe a family dinner at Clyde's Willow Creek Farm.
But, as Barack Obama begins his second term, the air is decidedly unchanged in this northern Virginia community of tidy subdivisions and endless rows of townhouses.
After a viciously fought, pavement-pounding political campaign, the people are left divided, the gulf between them wide like the grassy medians that separate left and right sides of the roads that lead to the nation's capital.
There is the reliably Republican old Ashburn. Some of those folks remember lush fields and woods brimming with redbuds and ash. Legend has it the place took its name from an old ash struck by lightning so hard that it smoldered for a week.
There is the new divided Ashburn that looks like America's new normal. An explosion of growth in the last two decades turned this place from a largely white conservative constituency to one that is darker-skinned and comprised of more professional women. They call themselves progressive thinkers and are a big reason that Obama in 2008 became the first Democrat to win here -- and in the state of Virginia -- since Lyndon B. Johnson's victory in 1964.
This time, the commonwealth again hung in the balance. Loudoun County was a battleground within a battleground. Ashburn was its epicenter.
In the end, Obama took Virginia with 51% of the vote to Mitt Romney's 47%, but Obama won in Ashburn's nine precincts by a mere 212 votes. In the Belmont Ridge precinct, the difference was six votes. That's how close it was here.
The people in Ashburn hold widely differing visions of how to steer America in the next four years, but they are tired of the partisan bickering in the halls of power in Washington. They wonder what happened to the voices of reason, the voices of moderation.
About eight in 10 people see partisan divide as the largest conflict among Americans, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week.
As Obama takes the inaugural oath Monday, the wish from divided Ashburn is voiced in unison: Mr. President, they say, "We want you to work with Congress. We want you to fix America."
America, the patient
Mike Oberschneider, 44, founded his Ashburn psychology practice in a suite of offices atop a strip-mall grocery called Giant. He was attracted to the area for the same reasons so many others are: a high standard of living, good schools and Washington just 40 miles away.
Ashburn boasts the nation's highest median household income, in part because of dual incomes. Many here work for the federal government, defense contractors and tech companies. Facebook, Amazon, Wikipedia and Microsoft all have data centers in the area. More than 50% of the world's Internet data runs through Loudoun County.
But it is also a place where housing and the costs of daily life are high and when the economy started its downward plunge, people felt the stress.
Oberschneider believes the wave of optimism Obama rode in 2008 quickly waned as the recession choked America.
One day gas was $3.50; the next month, it was $4.50, he says. One day the Dow closed at 12,000. The next it plunged to 8,000. It all made for an uncertainty that began to commandeer people's lives.
"Mitt Romney and Barack Obama entered the room a lot more than I thought they would," Oberschneider says of his sessions with patients. "We're not feeling confident as a nation that we're doing well."
Oberschneider, who voted for Obama in 2008 but not in 2012, says the president was dealt a bad hand. He took office last time just when the recession was taking hold. "But he played it all wrong," Oberschneider believes. And it got too negative and too aggressive all too quickly.
Before Obama places his hand on the Bible on Monday and begins his second term as president, Oberschneider wants to tell him this:
"I'd like to see you stretch your ideological bandwidth," he says. "Holding on to an ideology, even though it's true to your heart, is not the right approach."
He sees America like one of his patients -- perhaps an alcoholic or someone in a failing marriage. The patient is in bad shape and Obama needs to help.
"I don't think it mattered who won -- Obama or Romney. We'd be facing the same problems," he says.
"As a nation, we need to get more responsible. Debate less. Agree more."
They all eat BBQ but they don't vote the same way
Not far from where that ash tree is said to have smoldered, there's a blazing fire at Danny Hurdle's barbecue joint. Everything here is pig. Pig aprons, pig signs, pig candy holders. A chalkboard next to the entrance proclaims: "Today's pig was from South Mills, N.C."
Not really, Hurdle laughs. His grandkids wrote that to honor their pop-pop's hometown.
What's now Carolina Brothers Pit Barbeque used to be a landmark in Ashburn: the Partlow Brothers store. They sold groceries, hardware, gas, oil. Hurdle, 64, is a stonemason by trade but bought the Partlow building six years ago and took up barbecue.
From Hurdle's place, it's easy to imagine the old Ashburn. Some of the Victorian houses have been restored with curatorial care, though many of the old buildings were torn down. There are still trees and greenery here along Ashburn Road, but perhaps not for long.
NV Homes planted a trailer a stone's throw from Hurdle's place to build 18 high-end homes in a newly developed cul-de-sac. All 18 are stamped sold on the site plan.
Hurdle can feel the changes sweeping Ashburn. He can see it every day in his restaurant. On this day, there is a young Sikh boy, a Muslim man and working women on a lunch break. He added beef and chicken to his menu to keep up with changing dietary needs. "Not everyone eats pig," he says. "But they all eat barbecue."
He also thought they would all vote for Romney.
"I was surprised the election was so close," he adds.
He shows off a picture of a sign that a friend sent him: "Guns allowed on premises." It's in line with Hurdle's values. One of the reasons he voted for Romney was because he is against abortion, he says.
Employee Jen Steele pipes up. She's 23 and working her way through nursing school. She grew up in a Republican family but says her generation has gone beyond aligning with parties.
"For me, it's issues," she says, working the cash register. "I didn't vote for Romney."
"For the same reason I voted for him," Hurdle says.
Steele voted for the GOP in 2008 but was turned off by comments from Republican politicians on rape and abortion. It felt like an assault on women.
She thought Obama delivered a message of inclusiveness, like he cared for everyone no matter what their station in life. She even saw a TV ad he made entirely in Spanish.
"But he's got his work cut out for him," she says.
Hurdle answers: "Maybe we need term limits in Congress."
The new Americans
Attorney John Whitbeck, 36, makes it a point to show up at events like Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, where he tries to tout the merits of the GOP. South Asians tend to vote Democratic.
Republican state delegate David Ramadan filed a bill this year that would officially recognize Diwali day.
Whitbeck, chairman of the 10th Congressional District Republican Committee, concedes his party did not do a great job in reaching out to Loudoun's newest citizens.
Between the 2000 and 2010 Census, Loudoun County's white population dropped from 83% to 69%. The county is now almost 15% Asian (a huge number are from the Indian subcontinent) and 13% Hispanic.
The rapidly changing demographics played a big role in Obama's victory here, as they did nationally.
"It all starts with the recognition that the cultural framework of Loudoun County includes them," Whitbeck says. "Our children go to the same schools yours do. You are just as able to be a part of the Republican Party as the white middle-class guy."
But that message has so far fallen short with many South Asians like accountant Hari Sharma. who sees the GOP as making token efforts to gain his vote. He'll watch the inauguration Monday with hope in his heart that this president will make America feel more like home to those who are fairly new here.
"Obama's policies are more supportive of immigrants," he says.
As someone who looks at income tax returns for a living, he thinks Obama is on the right track by increasing taxes for the wealthy. Sharma says Obama has done a good job in turning the economy around and thanks the president for his 401(k) rising back up after it was halved. He applauds Obama for starting the new year with an effort to curb gun violence.
"We come from a peace-loving culture," he says.
Sharma, 49, met his wife, Sarita, 39, after both left their native Nepal and enrolled in university in Virginia. They settled in Loudoun County in 2004, part of the explosive wave of immigrants looking for opportunities that are scarce back home. They worked for AOL for a while. Sharma now runs his own accounting business.
Their daughter Simron sits in her father's home office studying for two exams the next day. Math and journalism.
Sarita Sharma yells from the living room. "I want an A in both."
That's the South Asian ethic. Study hard or you won't be prosperous in life. Education guarantees are important for the Sharmas. They want Obama to set policies that will increase accessibility to college, make it more affordable, especially for foreign students.
They see Obama as a president who extends a hand to people of color. That's important to Sharma when South Asians are underrepresented institutionally. "We want our voices heard," he says.
Obama's reach to minorities is a big reason Barbara Mitchell says he is the right man to lead America at this juncture in the nation's history.
Mitchell, 53, was born to Panamanian parents but was adopted and raised by a white couple in Maryland. She had taken, as she calls it, a perilous journey of the heart to find her family.
On this dreary January day, her niece is visiting Ashburn from Panama City and Mitchell is trying out her brand new countertop grill to make blueberry pancakes.
She says she read that Virginia was one of the top 10 states for Latino voter impact. Last year, she worked hard to bring more Latinos in Ashburn and Loudoun County, many of whom hail from El Salvador and Mexico and are less educated than their Asian counterparts, into the political fold.
She set up shop in front of an international grocery. She registered only two people that day but handed out 40 flyers describing the path to citizenship and got an earful about how devastating deportations were.
It was an epiphany of sorts.
"Immigration. Immigration. Immigration reform," she says. That's what she wants to tell Obama before he takes the oath.
Stop the deportations that separate families and then help Latinos in this country get a better education, she says. Some 41% of Hispanics who are 20 or older do not have a regular high school diploma, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Center.
"Education matters so much in terms of breaking into the middle class," she says. "I just feel it's going to be really tough for young, impoverished Latinos."
A strong nation
Corporate executive Ralph Buona ran for a county supervisor post last year because he believed the area needed people like him with strong business backgrounds to deal with whirlwind growth. In 2000, there were just 30 schools in Loudoun County; now there are 82.
Buona, 57, is less interested in the social issues that make people think vivid red and blue.
"People's concerns in Ashburn are fiscal," he says. "I'd tell Obama to stop dictating and start being a leader. I'd say you're only half of the deal. You're great at increasing revenues but you have to start looking at costs."
It's a position that architect Bob Klancher agrees with. "It's the national debt that's crushing us," he says. "I don't understand what a lot of folks saw in the president that made them want to rehire him."
Klancher, 54, was raised in Cleveland by parents of Slovenian heritage who worshiped Jesus, FDR and JFK. He was the first one in his family to earn a college degree.
In his first presidential election in 1976, he just couldn't vote for Jimmy Carter. Carter's policies didn't make sense to him. He has voted Republican ever since.
But polarization of the nation, he believes, began in the 2000 election after the Supreme Court had to step in to help decide the Florida results.
"Both parties have drummed out the moderates. People take absolutist stances whether it's the Republicans with their no-tax pledge or the Democrats on spending. I am frustrated."
He wants Obama to bring back the optimism Americans once had that their children's lives will be better than theirs.
Younger Ashburn residents like Caleb Weitz understand Klancher's concerns. He's 25 but already stashes about 10% of his salary working at the Board of Supervisors office in his retirement account.
"As a young person, I'm not expecting to get Social Security," he says. "There's also a concern in my generation about how much debt is being handed down."
But Weitz has one other major concern.
As a young American, he is proud that his country has been a leader; that it has been able to help other nations, guide them to form democratic societies and adopt the values Americans cherish.
He's come to terms with the notion that he will perhaps retire without the safety nets his parents had, including Social Security. But he wants the country he grows old in to still be the world's superpower.
Friends in Obama
Madeline Lewis, 62, works on employment discrimination cases for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Stephanie Brunotts, 53, is a stay-at-home mom. The two became friends working for the Obama campaign.
They were part of the ground game in Ashburn that pushed Obama over the top. They registered voters, knocked on doors, drove people to the polls. Anything to get their man in for another four years.
At Brunotts' townhouse, Lewis, a diehard Redskins fan -- she has season tickets -- rattles off all the things that will matter to her in Obama's second term. Women's rights. Gun control. Access to education.
"I'm concerned about our inner cities," says Lewis, who grew up in Newark, New Jersey. "I want everyone to be educated, get a job. That way, they are not breaking into my house."
The two talk about the Newtown tragedy. Lewis, who is divorced, bought a handgun for personal protection but she doesn't know why anyone would need to own an assault weapon.
She wants to tell Obama to bring back some manufacturing to America. Everything seems to be made somewhere else now. She wants the president to give incentives for companies to stay here. She almost sounds like her Republican neighbors.
"The clothes they make in China are garbage," she says, picking her ginger ale off Brunotts' coffee table, which prominently displays the Time magazine cover of Obama's win in 2008.
Brunotts says Obama did all he could in his first term with his hands tied. She points to Obamacare. "Who knew people would have this level of health care?"
The two women wonder why the country had become so polarized. "Romney's father was a moderate Republican," Lewis says. "People worked together then."
Maybe Washington has reached rock bottom, Brunotts says.
"Maybe it had to break for it to start fresh, to fix it."
Things get worse before they get better
Back at the Giant supermarket complex, Oberschneider, the psychologist, thinks it will take a while for Ashburn -- and the nation -- to heal.
But sometimes, he says in true form to his profession, things need to get worse before they get better. Like an alcoholic in a terrible car accident. That's how he views the ideological divide.
He says he respects Obama. "He's still my president." And that he, like everyone else in America, needs to be able to believe in him.
"I would love to do a group therapy session with all of them -- the president, Congress," he says.
Then he leans back in his oversized chair, in his darkened office in the middle of Ashburn, Virginia, and says: "I think it would take more than one session."
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