In a recent column for The Washington Post, Richard Cohen recounted how FDR cried when he learned that children living in migrant worker camps had no toys for Christmas. “Don’t tell me any more, Helen,” he said to Helen Gahagan Douglas—who, political junkies will remember, later lost a nasty Senate race to Richard Nixon. Roosevelt, the patrician, could connect to the less fortunate. Could Obama, Cohen asks? When the stock market fell by more than 500 points in August, the image that night was of the president whooping it up at his birthday party. “He does not seem to care,” Cohen concludes.
Yale professor emeritus Ted Marmor and Yale law professor Jerry Mashaw made similar points in a New York Times op-ed a couple weeks ago. They drew a distinction between the language Roosevelt used to talk about the country’s severe economic distress and the words the president uses to talk about such distress today. Roosevelt told Congress that he placed “the security of the men, and women and children of the nation first.” They “want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours.”
Contrast FDR’s words with Obama’s language when he appointed his fiscal commission. Marmor and Mashaw wrote that Obama said the commission’s task was “to improve the fiscal situation” “to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run” and to address “the growth of entitlement spending.” What exactly did those words convey to men and women on the street?
Wanting some empirical evidence of whether the president was speaking to ordinary people, I walked the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska, asking those I met if Obama was listening to their concerns. Was he connecting to them? The general consensus was that he was not. I had hardly had asked my question when Le Ann Goebel, a sixty-nine-year old filling her grocery cart at a Hy-Vee Supermarket, shouted no. “I have no love for Obama; he’s all talk and no go. I don’t listen to him. He’s nothing but campaigning for himself,” she said. Goebel, who worked in a high school kitchen, was concerned both for herself and for the country. “The job situation has to change,” she told me, and then talked about her own worries. “Medicare and Social Security are the main topics here,” Goebel said. “They are cutting down Medicare and that means our insurance company will have to pick up more and our supplements will go up.”
Her Medigap policies from Mutual of Omaha cost about $400 a month for her and her husband. She knew she had a supplement called Plan F, and that the health law had mandated higher amounts of cost-sharing for that policy. That meant that she might have to pay more down the road, and she was not pleased. As for Social Security, she worried that her children, now in their late forties, wouldn’t get it.
Another shopper, Angela Schiltz, a twenty-five-year-old single mom with a sixteen-month-old baby, worries about jobs and completing a community college program so she can become a medical lab technician. The average pay, she said, would be about $19 an hour when she started out, but it would be steady work with health insurance. “I am a working single mother trying to make things better for me,” she said. Earlier this year she lost her job at a medical software design company, but quickly found other employment at a call center. It pays only $8.75 an hour for fifteen hours of work, instead of the $11 she was earning at the old job. Money is tight; she has no cable TV channels, but buys the newspapers a few days a week “to stay in the loop.”
“Obama has not connected with me,” she said. “I don’t know if someone who isn’t going through this can understand. I don’t think they can completely understand how hard it is.” Even though jobs are important to her, she has no hope for the president’s jobs plan. “I don’t think it will create as many jobs as he thinks,” she said. “We have to put in extreme taxes on the wealthy. The taxes need to be fair.”
Topics like employment and education were on the mind of nineteen-year-old Tori Jarecke, a server in the restaurant at the Embassy Suites. She has completed her first year of studies at Southeast Community College and is planning a career as a dental hygienist. Obama is “saying a lot of stuff he hasn’t really done. It’s not entirely his fault,” she said. But she isn’t sure he has gotten more jobs for people or gotten them out of debt.