The Undecideds: No regrets about Obama, but hardly any enthusiasm either

Democrat Rhonda Laris can't understand why President Barack Obama is so consumed with overhauling health care, instead of helping people like her husband find work.

Independent voter Bill Chever wishes the president would stop being so nice all the time and occasionally "kick a few butts" in Washington.

And Jim Soltis thinks Obama has been a disaster who makes Jimmy Carter look terrific in comparison.

"If he's the Messiah, I want to be at the next crucifixion," said Soltis, a 72-year-old Republican former professor from Holiday. "He has polarized America like I've never seen it in my lifetime."

Today marks one year since Obama took office. So how's he doing?

We turned to a select group of Tampa Bay voters who had wrestled mightily with the choice of John McCain or Obama.

"The jury is still out. He inherited a mess, obviously,'' said 82-year-old Republican Donn Spegal of St. Petersburg. "Are the stimulus packages really the way to go? Well, everybody seemed to think so — Republicans and Democrats — though there's a lot of us old conservatives still gagging on that. I wish they were moving faster to rein in the financial industry, but they've got very good lobbyists."

Over the final three months of the 2008 presidential campaign, the St. Petersburg Times convened a group of undecided voters in the biggest swing region of America's biggest swing state. In August, they started out very skeptical of Obama; in September, they were horrified by the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate; and ultimately, in late October, 10 out of 11 decided to vote for Obama.

Today no one regrets their vote; nor are they especially enthusiastic about Obama.

"You cannot move a mountain in 52 weeks. . . . I don't think Obama can cure all these months and years of chaos that have been created,'' said Democrat Annette Kocsis, 69, who said Obama has reminded her a bit of Carter with his lack of effectiveness in dealing with Congress.

Among eight members of the group who spoke to the Times again recently, most gave the president a first-year grade of C or C-plus.

"I can't say he's done anything yet. However, like I said all along you can't change things overnight,'' Republican Philinia Lehr, 39, said in a telephone interview.

Lehr, a mother of five who recently moved from Largo to South Carolina, disagrees with Obama's approach to health care reform and with the bank bailouts. But like most other participants, she still generally likes him.

"The man can speak,'' she said. "He talks like a leader. And Michelle Obama's doing a great job keeping those children regular children."

Other than Soltis, who voted for McCain and gives Obama an overall grade of F, there were some common sentiments among these swing voters:

• Several said the president needs to show more fire and be less deferential to Congress.

"He seems to just be letting the two houses of Congress control it," 68-year-old independent voter Tom Gerhart, who moved recently from Riverview to Georgia, said in a telephone interview. "I don't see anyone beating on heads to make something happen."

"He needs a little Truman in him,'' agreed Spegal, a retired military officer.

• Most lamented that the health care bill has been hashed out too secretly and questioned how any citizen is supposed to understand what's actually in the works.

"Where's the transparency in Obama's government? They need to open up a little and let the people know what's going on," said Republican Mark Sayre, 51, of St. Petersburg.

• Among several of these voters, Gov. Charlie Crist draws more criticism than Obama.

"He's making this big run for the United States senator saying, 'Oh, I can help the state of Florida more in Washington.' No you can't. Stand up there and be the governor,'' said Sayre.

"You were elected to be the governor. So be the governor,'' agreed Laris, a 54-year-old loan officer from Temple Terrace.

Laris said she is baffled by Obama devoting so much energy to health care reform.

"Don't we have bigger problems? My husband doesn't have health coverage, but I'd rather he had a job, which he doesn't have,'' said Laris, whose husband is a house painter.

"I just don't understand why we're so focused on health care. To me that's a second-term issue. But this is what we have for the next three years. I'm hoping it gets better."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

The Undecideds

Read our coverage from the 2008 election at links.tampabay.com.

The Undecideds: No regrets about Obama, but hardly any enthusiasm either 01/19/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 19, 2010 11:27pm]

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