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Politics & Government

Obama's Years: Road Trip Colorado

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Recently, NPR interviewed voters for a special program on President Obama's years in office. My colleague Steve Inskeep traveled to places around the country where Obama gave speeches over the last eight years. In Denver in 2008, Obama said the true measure of the economy is whether a waitress can afford to take a day off. So Steve dropped into a restaurant just outside of Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: So it's Aurora, Colo. It's spitting rain. And we're at the Red Robin Gourmet burger joint.

What's your recommendation between the Banzai Burger and the Black & Bleu?

JOHN HOODY: I really like the Banzai Burger.

INSKEEP: The waiter is John Hoody. He's 29, dressed in black. Can you afford to take a day off?

HOODY: Absolutely.

INSKEEP: Tell me about that.

HOODY: Well, I work two jobs. So I'm a bartender across the street over at Applebee's. So I open here and then close over there. And I work about 50 hours a week. But I can afford a day off.

INSKEEP: So you're doing pretty well then?

HOODY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Are you living on your own?

HOODY: I am.

INSKEEP: You got an apartment or a house?

HOODY: I have a townhome

INSKEEP: Do you own it?

HOODY: The bank owns it, but I'm making payments.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: He thinks his home value is rising. And he's likely right. People are moving to Denver. They pushed up home prices, a big change from the Great Recession. Local unemployment fell from 9.1 percent to around 3 percent. So there you have it, a modest success story of Obama's years, except one other thing - do you have health insurance?

HOODY: I don't. With Obamacare, from my understanding of it, I can't get insurance unless it's just astronomically priced, $400 a month.

INSKEEP: And you don't have $400 a month?

HOODY: Not that I can just throw out there every month. That's a lot.

INSKEEP: We were just beginning a 1,700-mile trip. We drove to Denver's Lincoln Elementary. And at the front desk, which is guarded by a bust of Lincoln, we got a pass to a classroom birthday celebration.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. How old are you? How old are you?

INSKEEP: Jeremy Simon (ph) - blue shirt, blue eyes - was about to turn 9. He was in a classroom crammed with books. Light poured in the windows. And two guests sat in the classroom circle.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: So Jeremy, why don't you tell us who's here to celebrate your birthday with us?

JEREMY SIMON: My mom Anna and my other mom Fran.

INSKEEP: His moms listened as he recalled big events of his year.

FRAN SIMON: Any other big things that happened this year?

JEREMY: Wait. Is this year the year that you guys finally got to be married?

INSKEEP: This was the year, thanks to the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. Anna is a professor. Fran is a researcher. And they walked us to their home after school. Walk across their wide front porch and into the living room, and you immediately see their own history hanging on the wall, mementos of their time as marriage activists.

SIMON: We decided to get all of our news coverage framed. Yeah, so our house is sort of a shrine to marriage actually.

INSKEEP: They married in Obama's years, though the president did not aggressively seek that change. In that 2008 convention speech, Obama did not endorse same-sex marriage. Back then, he favored only civil unions.

How much credit do you give the president for how much things have changed?

ANNA SHER SIMON: We might be divided on this one. I don't know (laughter).

JEREMY: The president barely did anything.

INSKEEP: Jeremy thinks his parents did more, though, as we sat at the dining room table, his mom Anna said Obama set a tone.

SHER SIMON: It was so exciting to have a president finally who could even say the words gay and lesbian in a respectful way.

INSKEEP: And today, Anna and Fran say they get to be a married couple instead of marriage activists.

Is this a weird way to put You get to be normal people now.

SHER SIMON: Right.

JEREMY: Yeah, it would.

SIMON: You talk about, like, what are we doing with all of that time that we had spent at the capital? And so - yeah, now we're working. And we're volunteering at the school and back to living a normal life (laughter).

INSKEEP: If their lives became normal, we also met a Colorado man whose life is not.

REENA ADVANI, BYLINE: Hi, Tom. We're just right in front of the theater sitting in our car. But...

INSKEEP: Our editor, Reena Advani, called Tom Sullivan. He was at the Century theater in Aurora Colorado.

Do you live near here?

TOM SULLIVAN: Yeah, not too far. Actually, my son lived a lot closer. But we were...

INSKEEP: How old was he?

SULLIVAN: Twenty-seven.

INSKEEP: Twenty-seven...

SULLIVAN: Yeah, it was his 27th birthday.

INSKEEP: A birthday his son Alex celebrated at the movies, a "Batman" premiere where a gunman opened fire in 2012. Twelve people were killed.

SULLIVAN: You know, it was a midnight showing. And Alex, at the time, was working at Red Robin. And he had invited a lot of his friends from work. They were the seat-savers.

INSKEEP: And so they saved their seats. Then the midnight showing came.

SULLIVAN: Midnight showing came.

INSKEEP: And the shooting was what time?

SULLIVAN: Twelve thirty-eight.

INSKEEP: Twelve thirty-eight a.m.

SULLIVAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Of that party of about 20, how many survived?

SULLIVAN: Six of them were shot. Alex was the only fatality.

INSKEEP: After that shooting, Tom Sullivan retired from the post office.

SULLIVAN: You know, I'm that parent coming, you know, to go back to people and friends and co-workers that you knew. And people don't know how, you know, to even talk to you anymore. I mean, some of them will even walk the other way, you know, because it's just too painful. I mean - and they end up being in that - geez, I'm going to say the wrong thing. You know, I'm going to hurt him. There isn't anything that anyone can say. I mean, I've already heard the worst thing that I'm ever going to hear in my life.

INSKEEP: President Obama came here and spoke.

SULLIVAN: Yes.

INSKEEP: A few weeks afterward, a few days afterward?

SULLIVAN: It was two days after.

INSKEEP: What, if anything, sticks with you about what the president said?

SULLIVAN: I mean, it's just - you know, you could tell he got - you know, he understood. You know, I was talking to another father, you know, who had two children the same that I did. And, you know, we talked about our kids. And we talked about, you know, them growing up and what you can prepare for and what you can't prepare for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, scripture says that he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.

INSKEEP: His speeches after more than a dozen shootings have punctuated Obama's years. His appeals for gun control did not affect a Congress that was concerned about gun rights. Colorado did pass gun measures, but Tom Sullivan wants more. He's running for state Senate as a Democrat, seeking changes that did not come in Obama's years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We've become numb to this. We talked about this after Columbine and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after...

MONTAGNE: That's part of our radio documentary, Obama's Years. It's a special program now playing on many NPR stations and in the NPR Politics podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.