DURHAM, N.C. — Wilma Dillard took over her family's barbecue restaurant in 1997, after her father's death. But this spring — with her blue-collar customers cutting back, and the banks unwilling to extend the usual credit — she was forced close the 58-year-old Durham eatery and lay off her dozen employees.
"I could hear my father telling me, 'Wilma, it's time for you to get out of the waters. The water's a little too rough for you right now,'" the 51-year-old former school teacher says. "'Bring it into dock, and maybe it can sail again at a later day.'"
On Thursday, she and millions of other recession-weary Americans sat rapt before their televisions as President Barack Obama told Congress that later isn't soon enough.
"They need help," Obama said in pushing his nearly $450 billion American Jobs Act. "And they need it now."
Dillard took heart; she proclaimed herself "inspired" by Obama's speech, and pleased to see Republicans applauding some of his comments. This economic crisis, she said, "shouldn't be settled at the ballot boxes."
Dillard is an optimist, unlike many others who watched Obama's speech. They hold all sorts of opinions about his proposals, but hovering over it all is skepticism that the ferocious partisanship of recent months can be overcome, and that anything will be done.
Marc Epstein liked what the president was saying. He just didn't care for the WAY he said it. Epstein, owner of Boston-based Milk Street CafÉ, said he would have preferred something less "pugnacious."
Epstein, 53, opened his first "food hall" in Boston in 1981 and employs 65 people there. In June, he used a loan guaranteed by the Small Business Administration to open a second location on Wall Street in New York City, putting 107 more people to work.
He took advantage of the down economy — and an empty space in a prime location — to expand.
"I feel that I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing, which is create jobs," he said.
He wants to see more of what he was able to benefit from — the public/private partnership between the SBA and his bank. But he's not sure Obama's approach is likely to create the kind of bipartisan feeling that will make that happen.
"I don't know if it's going to be dead on arrival," he said of Obama's proposal.
Watching House Speaker John Boehner's body language, Roy Dabbs agreed.
"He's sitting back like, 'Oh, no. I'm not touching this baby,'" said Dabbs, 64, of Elkhart, Ind., who was laid off in January 2010 from his $68,500-a-year job as an operations manager for an Illinois packaging company. "I think they're going to fight it."
Ansha Saunders, of Redwood City, Calif., worried that the speech only served to highlight the divide between Obama and Republicans, big business and the average worker.
Saunders, 35, was laid off in March from a job in accounts receivable for the credit card industry. She's been going to career fairs, hoping to land something that will take advantage of her master's degree in information systems.
"I get the concerns by business owners about closing tax loopholes, because that's how they've been profitable," she said.
"I want to be optimistic that Congress will really not just use this (downturn) to say, 'We want a Republican in next year,' but really look to the benefit the U.S. economy, the people who are out of work, and compromise."
But David J. Tufts thought the president struck just the right tone. When Tufts joined The Marketing Directors in 2007, the Atlanta-based real estate marketing company was in expansion mode. By the end of 2009, the luxury condominium market in "Hotlanta" had cooled.
"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.