SCRANTON, Pa. — Pat McMullen is sipping a cocktail in a cozy booth inside Pat McMullen's Irish pub just east of downtown, an easy stop after work to talk politics.
"I didn't think he'd be good," McMullen is saying.
"No, you didn't," his wife, Margaret, affirms.
"I wasn't on the bandwagon," McMullen says. "He came from nowhere. A lot of people told me, This guy's going to be the one. I said, I dunno."
Yet, like many of their neighbors, McMullen, 62, reluctantly voted for Barack Obama in November, setting aside concerns that he lacked substance and experience because he just couldn't vote for the Republican, not after the past eight years.
Now, as Obama finishes his first 100 days in office, the McMullens and many other former Obama skeptics in this working-class town in northeastern Pennsylvania consider themselves fans, won over by the young president's willingness to explain his ideas to the American people, and the simple fact that he appears to be trying his best to right the listing U.S. economy — even if they have little to show for his efforts so far.
It's a view that several national polls taken in advance of Wednesday's 100-day mark suggest is widespread. Obama's approval rating stands at 62 percent — the highest of any president at this point in his first term since Ronald Reagan. And for the first time in years, the same AP poll found, more Americans think the country is going the right way than the wrong way.
"He's trying to straighten this country out," Pat McMullen says as a cold spring rain lashes the dark, pot-holed street outside. "And people have to give him a chance."
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In Scranton, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression comes with plenty of visual aids: shuttered factories by the Lackawanna River and vacant storefronts around town.
One recent morning, 38-year-old Matthew Vasinda — welder, sculptor, amateur ballroom dancer — arrived at the sprawling salvage yard where he repairs wrought iron to find that his lone assistant had been laid off. He worries he's next. At the pawnshop downtown, owner Joe Rizza bemoans his lousy selection of used TVs: He should have 50 or so for sale, but now he's got just a half dozen, a sign that people aren't replacing old stuff with new stuff. At least demand for payday loans is up.
Stephen Ruddy, 51, a member of Laborers Union Local 130, has been collecting unemployment since December. He's No. 5 on the list of guys to get called when the union gets work, but nearly 100 more are in line behind him. Overall, nearly 1 out of 10 people in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre area are out of work, above the state average. "The worst it's been in years," Ruddy says.
Yet even some who voted for Obama's rival, Republican Sen. John McCain, say they are willing to give the president more time for his policies to work.
Extensive interviews in Scranton last week show that people here don't expect Superman. They are happy with a man of action.
"Do I like the idea of giving GM money? No," said Howard Ufberg, 62, co-owner of Starr Uniform in south Scranton. "On the other hand, I don't know what else to do."
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Northeastern Pennsylvania is a Democratic stronghold, but its voters are largely Reagan Democrats — working class, Catholic and culturally conservative, the people who helped Ronald Reagan sweep into the White House in 1980, and who often decide elections in swing states in the Rust Belt.
Surrounding Lackawanna County is 96 percent white, and volunteers who canvassed for Obama last year said folks weren't shy about using racial slurs as they slammed the door in their faces. Some worried he was a closet Muslim. Many were peeved when Obama told supporters in San Francisco that rural Pennsylvanians cling to guns and God because they're bitter.
The Scranton area eventually broke Obama's way, though, because his running mate, Vice President Joe Biden, was born here and because McCain never convinced voters he would be any better for the economy than President George W. Bush.
Now, as president, Obama needs their support to maintain his political power and, with midterm congressional elections next year, to preserve the comfortable Democratic majorities in the House and Senate that will enable him to move his policies.
While some residents say they are worried about Obama's plans for deficit spending, so far, there is little evidence the attacks by conservative commentators and Republican politicians that Obama is driving the nation to socialism are sticking.
Despite their enthusiasm, however, many worry Obama is attempting too much. Obama is making billions of dollars available to shore up banks and help them shed bad debt, part of what eventually could become a government infusion of $2 trillion into the financial system. He essentially fired the head of General Motors, has traveled to major conferences in Europe and Latin America, and now is pushing plans to reform health care (a popular cause here) and to control global warming by cutting pollution (not so popular in this industrial city).
"I'm not happy," said Dave Schlasser, 64, an insurance and investment adviser who voted for Obama. "Some of his ideas are good, but he's jumping into too many things. ... He should concentrate on getting the economy back."
"He needs to prioritize," said Dashiki Sekerak, a 29-year-old bartender, who was getting her hair done at Styles by Connie in south Scranton.
Takieta Lacoste, 35, an unemployed nursing assistant, is thankful for the $24-per-month boost in food stamps that Obama's $787-billion stimulus package gave her, but she agrees. "The most important to the least important. He can't do everything at once."
But what's most important depends on whom you ask.
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The past months have been a bit brighter than one might expect for Biel Light Bulb Co., a 38-year-old, family-owned business in Scranton. But when Tom Biel, 56, tried to get a loan to help the business grow, he was denied — by six banks.
Without more credit, Biel Light Bulb can't expand its inventory and it has had to back off its push for new customers. The Biels voted for Obama and are generally happy with him, but Tom Biel is getting impatient.
Many banks received $300 billion in taxpayer funds under last year's Troubled Asset Relief Program — which Republicans largely opposed — and Biel wants Obama to force them to lend more of that money.
"It's not their money to begin with," said Biel, whose daughter, Kristen, runs the business. "It's the taxpayer's money. It should be given back. We've held, by me borrowing off my credit card, and my wife's. And my daughter had to take out a personal loan.
"For the first time in my life, I feel like the Republicans were right, in how they voted."
Although the White House has dismissed the 100-day marker as an artificial, media-driven conceit — which it is — the president has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday night. Recently, he has been suggesting the economic outlook is brightening, and even in Scranton people say they get a sense the slide may be slowing.
On Tuesday, Stephen Ruddy got a call from his union hall, the first in months, asking him to work an overnight shift at a new state medical school being built in town. As a mason's assistant, he was needed to help pour the foundation from 7:30 p.m. Saturday night to 3:30 this morning — at nighttime wages of $30 an hour until midnight, and Sunday wages of $40 an hour after that.
He doesn't credit Obama, necessarily, but sees it as a sign things may be turning around. He has heard of other big jobs in the works, too.
"It's just one day, but ... you get to meet the contractor, and if he likes you, he might invite you back," Ruddy said. "I got my foot in the door. Could turn into weeks of work. You don't know. But you can't get a hit if you're not swinging."
Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.