Outside a popular 1940s-era roadside diner on the edge of downtown Charlotte, two friends – Henry Stepp and Phil Read, who’ve known each other 20 years since studying architecture together in North Carolina – sit at a table and look back on four years of the Barack Obama presidency.
“I don’t ding him for the economy,” said Mr. Stepp, an African-American who voted for Mr. Obama in 2008.
“I ding him for not doing the long-term planning [to restore fiscal stability],” he added, citing the need to cut federal spending and reform costly social programs. But come voting day, he will vote Obama.
“Really? Maybe with a couple of tequila shots I can change your mind,” his friend Phil, who grew up in a white Southern family, joked from across the table.
These two Charlotte residents and architects reflect the mood of the many voters who are not inside the arenas at political party conventions. As President Obama prepares to take to the stage at the Democratic National Convention tonight, his task is formidable: turn disappointment in to a second chance.
It will not happen – if it is to happen at all – in one speech alone.
But Mr. Obama has already benefited from a robust defence of his presidency by Bill Clinton in a speech Wednesday night that electrified delegates inside the hall.
The previous night, first lady Michelle Obama delivered an emotional and eloquent portrait that sought to humanize her husband and convey his concern for struggling Americans.
Just hours before Mr. Clinton took to the stage and officially nominated Mr. Obama for re-election, there is a steady stream of dinner-time customers inside Mattie’s Diner – a 1948 New Jersey diner rescued, restored and opened by Matt King, a New Jersey transplant to North Carolina.
Each table has a jukebox, and menu items often have a Jersey origin. “Gigantor’s Disco Fries – You aren’t from Jersey if you have to ask,” reads the menu. Translation: fries with gravy.
For Mattie, as his customers call him, it is more about the food than the politics, but he obliges.
“I think going back four years ago when Barack Obama was up for president that there were a lot of promises made and lot of hype about what’s going to come. I really haven’t noticed anything beneficial to me. Maybe I missed it, I don’t know,” said Mr. King, who opened the diner during the downturn.
“A lot of people get on Romney for being a business guy and for making money and I think that type of person is somebody who can help me out more than someone who’s not a business man.”
Mr. King will be working at the diner until 4 a.m. catering to late-night Democratic Party delegates.
And on this night, some of the 2,000 concert-goers lining up across the street from the diner to see the band Foo Fighters as part of a Rock the Vote event to register young voters will likely end up trying one of the 11 different burgers on the menu and 18 varieties of milkshake – including several that involve blending a slice of pie.
Mr. Read orders the cherry pie milkshake. Like his friend, he’s is deeply concerned about the country’s fiscal situation.
Tired of ‘Ivy League’ presidential candidates, Mr. Read says he won’t vote for Mr. Obama. “He’s too academic,” he said, adding that the White House needs a CEO figure. “I would trust someone who knows how to make money to spend my money,” said Mr. Read, citing Mr. Romney’s private sector experience and Mr. Obama’s lack of it.
As the two friends go their separate ways, Mr. Stepp offers this reporter a lift in to downtown Charlotte in his red 1994 Ford truck, which has clocked over 400,000 kilometres. “At some point, it just became an endurance thing,” he joked about his truck.
His likens the electorate’s relationship with Mr. Obama to a troubled marriage. “Things are bad,” he says. But the electorate hasn’t yet decided whether it is ready to give up on the President, he adds.