"Rather than fire people, we got together as a group and said we're going to be all in this together and keep it going," Tufts recalled. "It was a watershed moment for our company, and we were ready for the rebound. Unfortunately, the rebound has yet to come."
There have been few hires in the past two years, and no salary increases. This summer, he gave employees every other Friday off.
He said Obama "came on strong," because he had to.
"He said he's going to take it to the public," Tufts said. "I think he made his case very well that sometimes you have to spend money to make money. ... The logjam needs to be broken."
Others reveled in Obama's tough talk. "My immediate reaction is 'Wow! That's the guy I voted for,'" said Erik Berg, 43, who teaches at the John D. Philbrick Elementary School in Boston's Roslindale neighborhood. "Where's he been for the last 2 1/2 years?"
He particularly liked Obama's dig at members of Congress who've pledged never to vote for a tax hike on the wealthy.
"I don't know how our country has come to a point where we cuddle billionaires and we vilify working people, particularly public sector workers," he said.
Lincoln Newey, of Utah's Salt Lake Valley, said he liked the way Obama "took it to the tea party." Laid off in early 2009 by the limousine company he managed, the 49-year-old MBA with two decades of marketing and communications experience feels lucky to have a part-time job providing financial advice to seniors.
"It's an hourly wage, but it's the best hourly wage I've seen in a while," he said.
The way Newey sees it, nothing short of a "man on the moon" plan that ignores the clamor for reduced federal spending will shake the economy out of the doldrums.
Joe Olivo, though, was not impressed by the president's proposals. The owner of Perfect Printing in Moorestown, N.J., has had a good year so far. Revenue has grown 20 percent, back up to pre-recession levels. But he's still skittish from 2008, when revenue plunged 25 percent in a single month — the worst drop since he opened shop in 1979.
Olivo has 45 employees and could use a few more. But he's wary of reaching that magic payroll of 50, at which point health care reforms would mandate he provide employee health insurance or pay a fee beginning in 2014.
"That is a huge cloud," said Olivo, who has gotten by with temporary workers and has postponed buying new equipment. He said the president's proposals — such as the tax credit for hiring veterans — show he doesn't understand small business.
"They don't have the time or resources to file the paperwork to get those credits," he said. "There was nothing (in the speech) to convince me, 'Start investing again.'"
Back in Durham, Wilma Dillard swung by the restaurant Thursday to check on things, just as she does every few days. She's still paying the utilities, waiting — and hoping.
On a wall in the silent banquet room out back, the nation's first black president stares out from a framed, enlarged copy of an Ebony magazine cover. "IN OUR LIFETIME," the headline declares.
"This country cannot go down the tube — I just don't think it will," she said. "But we've got to come together. We've got to have unity. The parties have to come together and WORK together as one. This hand cannot fight this hand and expect for the body to be whole."
Associated Press writers Johanna Kaiser in Boston; Errin Haines in Atlanta; Ken Kusmer in Indianapolis; Christine Armario in Miami; Chris Rugaber in Washington, D.C.; Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind.; Haven Daley in Redwood City, Calif.; Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City; and Deepti Hajela in New York also contributed to this report.
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