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.
Debt is also on her mind. Her student loan for the first year was $8000, and she expects to owe a lot more by the time she finishes her program after she transfers to the University of Nebraska. She said that some told her that the Democratic Party was talking about forgiving all student loans to get the economy going again. (“If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be pretty upset.”) She wonders why college must be so expensive “to get somewhere with our lives,” and says Obama would speak to her if he could do something about the expense involved in going to college.
Has he connected with you, I ask? “I’d probably say no. I think this will be his last year,” she said. Then whom is he talking to? “Probably people with the money,” Jarecke replied.
John F. Kennedy came up a lot in my conversations. Even people who were not alive when he was assassinated— like Cody Schneider, who will turn thirty-five on Halloween—said JFK was a president who connected with the people. “Some presidents just reach out and appeal to the people,” he said. “I’ve watched tapes of JFK speaking and it seemed like he had a sincerity. He was passionate.” Schneider is a tattooist. Tartoos decorate his arms and neck. “I am uneducated and unreached,” he said. “I have not been reached or talked to by a president in a long time.” He told me that Bill Clinton sort of connected with him. Kennedy and Clinton were passionate presidents, he said. “They were for the people and their very needs.” As for Obama, he said. “You can feel sorry for the guy.”
Schneider had come in to the Nebraska Church Goods Co. on O Street, where I was talking to the fifty-four-year-old owner, Tim Franssen, who said the business, which sells bibles, statues, and church vestments, had been in his family since 1947. The business has been declining every year, a victim of Internet sales. “If it weren’t for my regular church wholesale accounts, I’d never make it at retail here,” Franssen told me. So how is Obama speaking to you about your business concerns, I wanted to know. The struggling businessman didn’t talk about jobs or what government could do to rev up his business. Instead he wanted to chat about the president’s stance on making the wealthy pay more taxes.
“I can understand what he is saying,” Franssen said, “But I don’t agree with him picking on the rich people,” he told me. “They got where they got because they worked for it and they deserve it. To me he’s picking on the elite.” He had tough words for disabled people who he thought were getting government handouts. “They take advantage of the government,” he said describing how some disabled people ride their scooters through the front door of his shop and then stand up to look for items to buy. He, too, liked Kennedy, and quoted the famous words from his inaugural address.
Homer Puderbaugh, age eighty-two, walked into a Phillips 66 gas station. A former professor of architecture, he had been retired from the University of Nebraska for seventeen years. Yes, he said, Obama connected with him, “only in a bad way.”
“I think he speaks only to people he can convince to vote for him. He’s a liar and a loser. He’s a goddam loser and should never have been in there. People wanted change and they sure as hell got it,” he said. I asked what Obama was lying about. “They can’t find any records from school; he’s refused to release a birth certificate. He was going to help the underclass, but he didn’t give any way he would do that. They were just words.”
Though Puderbaugh is a Republican, he has voted for Democrats from time to time, but he did not vote for Obama. He voted for Kennedy and for Bob Kerrey, who served the state as governor and later a U.S. senator. Obama, he said, “is no Jack Kennedy.” Puderbaugh added that he is disillusioned with politics.
So is thirty-five year-old Jason Ables, who manages a bar and restaurant specializing in small plates. He sat down with me for a lengthy chat. “I don’t think anyone in politics speaks to me. Obama is supposed to have a vision,” he said. What is it? “To be honest, I couldn’t tell you.”
He said Obama was speaking to the middle class, which he defined as folks with incomes of $250,000 and up. “Heck, if you define it this way, he’s not talking to me about anything.” Ables’s income is only about $40,000 a year. “I now have health insurance for the first time. It’s a catastrophic policy.” He pays $60 a month for coverage with a $5000 deductible. The more we talked, the more I could see that the president was speaking to him on some level, at least economically speaking. He didn’t like the bailout for the banks. “Everything should have been allowed to collapse. They got bailed out and walked away with millions. They are con artists. They are running a scam. When I was twenty years old, I screwed up my credit and dug myself out,” Ables said, asserting that the government should’ve forced the banks to do the same.
“Where’s the accountability?” he asked. “All politicians are really the same guy—only a little different. Everything is a fake. It’s hard to tell what’s real.” As Ables got up to begin preparing for the night’s customers, he said the restaurant had hosted fund raisers for both Democrats and Republicans. “I make sure their drinks are filled, and if they want snacks, we’ve got them.”Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: Barack Obama, health care, Lincoln, man on the street, Nebraska, town halls