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.
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