The Walmart Moms were pessimistic, bordering on despondent, about the country. Like, well, moms dealing with bickering children, they were exasperated by Washington lawmakers seemingly incapable of getting along.
They were surprisingly understanding about the president's plight. Even those who did not vote for Barack Obama shied away from blaming him for the current state of affairs. If anything, they felt sorry for him.
I spent a recent evening watching focus groups via video hookup — 30 women in all — in Pennsylvania, Missouri and Colorado. These were Walmart shoppers — the retailer sponsored the discussions — screened to exclude committed partisans and split evenly between 2008 supporters of Obama and John McCain.
Most had at least some college education. All made less than $100,000 annually, and for many the recession had hit painfully close, with husbands who had lost jobs and homes foreclosed or underwater.
All were likely to vote in November, but despite the intensity of Senate races in their states, they were largely oblivious to the candidates. For all the attacks lobbed at the Democratic and Republican congressional leadership, they knew little about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and even less about Minority Leader John Boehner.
If I were a member of Congress, I would have been horrified by their perception of lawmakers as elitists disconnected from — indeed, uninterested in — their concerns.
If I were a member of Congress up for re-election I would have been frightened by their hostility.
If I were the president, I would have felt relieved. Not great, but relieved.
Not because these women were going to vote for Obama. Even his 2008 supporters were, for the most part, unwilling to recommit. The word "disappointed" was used, along with stronger language, such as "fraud" and "scares me." But these voters' frustration with Obama was tinged with realism about the constraints he faces.
"I feel sorry for him," said one woman at the first focus group, in suburban Philadelphia.
"I do, too," interjected another.
"It's a tough job to take on," said a third. "I really don't think who I voted for would have made a difference."
In St. Louis, a McCain voter put it this way: "Poor Obama comes in and people expected him just to fix it all. People expected too much."
It's easy to forget, amid the angry clamor of the tea party and the carping of the disappointed left, that Obama's approval ratings are higher at this point than Bill Clinton's and Ronald Reagan's were at the same point in their presidencies. If the focus groups are a guide, Obama has some time to prove himself to these voters. They are less enraged than unconvinced.
"It's hard to trust him," one woman in St. Louis said, but it turned out that what she meant was not that Obama wasn't trustworthy — it was that she was uncertain that matters would improve. "A lot of things have happened since he's been in office, so we tend to blame him," she said. "And things haven't turned around very quickly, so what is going to happen next? You don't know."
Contrast this with the voters' attitude toward Congress, which provoked words such as "juvenile," "boneheads," "quagmire" and "poison." "They are so far removed from the working middle class," one Philadelphia woman said. Said another: "They don't go to the grocery store. They don't know how to balance their own budgets." Reactions to Sarah Palin were equally strong. "Joke," one woman said.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster who viewed the groups, said he was struck by these voters' seeming patience with the president. "I've seen it before that people want him to do well. But the clear voicing of sympathy for the guy was a surprise for me. They feel sorry for what he inherited and what he's got to deal with. … There's frustration he hasn't been able to figure it out. There's a clear sense that he's not the guy they voted for two years ago, but they still have hope that he can still be that guy."
Whatever happens in November, Newhouse said, "To think that Obama's toast in 2012, that is absolutely not the case."
© 2010 Washington Post Writers Group