The change Barack Obama campaigned on four years ago is a distant memory for some of the country's most important voters.
This is today's America for the "Walmart Moms" who could decide next year's presidential election: No more vacations, finding as much overtime as possible, forgoing movies and dinners out, juggling credit cards, gathering Sunday newspapers for their coupons, cutting cable service and sometimes giving blood for a few extra bucks. It means praying, literally in some cases, your refrigerator or car doesn't break down, or God forbid, you incur serious medical bills.
"What's happening here?" asked Jesse, mother of three. "We're just going backwards, not forward. You really feel like, 'Do I really want to live in the United States?' I know a lot of people who have moved to Costa Rica or Panama because of the U.S. economy."
Kimberly, a single mother of two living with parents who are fast draining their lifetime savings, has taken to teaching her 4- and 5-year-old sons to gather aluminum cans. "Santa is poor this year,'' she's already warned the boys.
In a nondescript office park outside Orlando, the fragility of Obama's re-election prospects were on full display one night last week at a focus group organized by Democratic pollster Margie Omero and Republican pollster Neil Newhouse. Ten mothers in their 20s and 30s gathered around a conference table, sharing their outlook on life, leadership and America heading into the 2012 election.
To call them anxious and frustrated would be a giant understatement.
Moderator Alex Bratty asked for one word to describe the state of the country. "Depressing," "sour," "bad," came the responses.
"Once you get behind you can't get caught up. Two months behind takes you a year. … You just can't get back to being in front of the ball, instead of behind it,'' said home-schooling mom Cheryl, who had expected to move into a better school district but can't because she's way underwater on her mortgage.
Just as political professionals used to obsess about "Soccer Moms" or "NASCAR Dads," these Walmart Moms are drawing loads of attention heading into 2012.
Watching these women for 90 minutes behind a one-way mirror was variously depressing — no short-term optimism, daily fear that they could lose their jobs at any moment — and uplifting — struggling, working and middle-class moms still keeping their humor and counting their blessings.
"These are the ones who are on the economic front lines in the country. They are generally late deciders, evenly split in partisanship and Obama really needs to win them back to win election," said Newhouse, the Republican pollster. "There's a sense among these women that they've kind of lost control of their financial situation. They are no longer in power to take control anymore and they are living right on the precipice."
Walmart Moms make up roughly 16 percent of the electorate. About two-thirds are white and roughly half have household incomes of less than $50,000 annually. In 2008 the group favored Obama over John McCain and in 2010 they swung to the GOP.
Their feeling about Obama now? "Indifferent,'' summed up one mom.
"What we were going through at that time (Obama's election) was bound to get worse. You could have the most beautiful speeches and you could promise so many things, but he's only a man," said Sylvia, mother of a 3-year-old and 6-month-old.
It's not that these women dislike him or blame him or have given up on him. But he's been not getting the job done. They are looking for bipartisan compromise, but they're also for strong leadership and passion. They don't see it in Obama, and patience is waning.
"I don't feel like he is being strong enough," said Cheryl. "He does have good ideas but I don't think he pushes them through."
At the same time, they are only vaguely aware of the Republican field and could name only a few of the GOP candidates. When you're consumed with trying to keep the electricity on and affording healthy lunches for the kids, watching debates and following daily campaign coverage is off the agenda.
Anger is the not the word to describe their mood heading into 2012. But bitterness is part of it.
"It is frustrating," said Sarah, mother of a 3-year-old girl. "The banks got bailed out, and they're the ones who started all this. They get bailed out, and they're all fine and dandy. We're the little people, and you just want a little bit of a break and we just can't get it. There is never anything in this country anymore that is trying to help us."
Nods all around the table.
Their hostility toward Congress is clear. They spoke of Democrats and Republicans dug in, fixated on their own agenda, and completely clueless about what working-class Americans are going through. If only these people in Washington could be forced to spend two months living their lives, one mother mused.
"All you hear about is they can't agree on anything to get things passed. ... It's all about their party or their ideology,'' Kimberly said. "We're in a very delicate state as a country, and it's very urgent that something be done."
Still, the buck stops with the president.
"He should be the moderator. He should be the one to have the parties come together,'' said Elizabeth. "There's no one to hold their feet to the fire. You want someone who's passionate about the country, about getting things done. You want some to say (to Republicans), 'I don't care what you say about me, what I care about is Jane Doe on Main Street who can't afford her electric bill.' "
"I'm looking for someone with a passion, with a fire," Kimberly agreed, "someone who really believes in the America we used to be."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.