Obama volunteers face anger in gulf in wake of oil spill


The Democrats of Mobile, Ala., have not forsaken President Obama, says Democratic activist Darlene Gay-Allen. But they have questions. Will scarce jobs become more scarce as the oil spill defiles their sliver of coastline on the gulf? Will it be safe to keep living in this city still recovering from Hurricane Katrina? Does Obama have any power to help them?

In answer, she cues up the music. “I’m Only a Man” by the Dells sometimes blares from a boombox as she registers voters around town and tries to persuade her neighbors to back the president during trying times.

“We try to explain to people it’s going to take time to get this all back on track,” said Gay-Allen, a volunteer for Organizing for America, a voter outreach group that grew out of the president’s vast grass-roots network during the 2008 campaign. “President Obama is only a man, and he’s doing the best he could.”

Thousands of Obama’s most ardent supporters like Gay-Allen are now filtering out into communities as part of the group’s Vote 2010 campaign, aimed at persuading people who do not ordinarily participate in off-year elections to go to the polls in November.

Volunteers say those they approach are largely receptive, which is not surprising considering their primary target: voters who cast their first-ever ballots in 2008, a group that heavily backed Obama. But not all have a favorable view of the president. And some volunteers are vexed themselves — not necessarily at Obama, but at the cascade of bad news that has made his campaign theme of hope difficult to maintain.

In Sarasota, Fla., where the oil has not yet reached the beaches but has already delivered a blow to the tourism industry, longtime Democratic activist Rick Farmer said his effort to win over voters has never been more difficult. The oil spill has deepened anxiety over persistent unemployment and an anemic housing market.

“I can’t tell you how much anger there is out there,” he said. “I have people ready to spit in my face.”

In a televised speech to the nation Tuesday, and standing on a pier just south of Mobile two days earlier, Obama tried to assuage fears that his administration cannot manage the massive gulf oil spill that has emerged as his greatest domestic challenge. In a recent Gallup poll, 71 percent of respondents said the president was not being tough enough on BP, the company that has so far failed to staunch the flow of oil threatening wildlife and livelihoods in this often-luckless region.

At recent volunteer training in New Orleans, the event opened with an airing of the participants’ worst fears: That seafood prices will spike. That their businesses will fail. That the beautiful waters that gave them so much may be ruined.

“I responded to their concerns by making the point that Louisianans have a long tradition of working hard, even through crisis,” said Steven Walker, southern regional director for Organizing for America. “People reflected on some of the challenges our state has had in recent years and reminded themselves that . . . by pulling together, supporting our community and standing with the president, this too shall pass.”

Gay-Allen said the spill has brought out some voters who think Republicans are unfairly criticizing Obama over his handling of the spill.

She has been unemployed since the Boys and Girls Club where she worked shut down and had hoped she would benefit from one effect of the spill: BP has been hiring local people to help with the cleanup. But she did not get the job. So she has put her efforts into helping the president she believes will help her.

“I have faith that the president can handle this. I really do,” she said. “He will get with the correct people and he’ll find a solution to this. We believe this. The only thing we have to hold on to right now is faith.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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