Thomas Fitzgerald: Positively cynical

Mixed applause. President Obama delivers his State of the Union as Vice President Biden and House Speaker John A. Boehner listen.
Mixed applause. President Obama delivers his State of the Union as Vice President Biden and House Speaker John A. Boehner listen. (AP, Pool)

Walmart Moms say Obama sounded good, but they aren't buying.

Posted: February 18, 2013

 In the pat phrase reserved for the occasion, President Obama said last week that "the state of our union is stronger."

The State of the Walmart Moms, however, is stressed, chaotic, and uncertain. They don't expect much.

Ten women in the subset of swing voters expressed profound cynicism about government in a Bala Cynwyd focus group last week, doubting the nation's leaders understand their lives or want to work together to help people such as them.

"They don't understand what it is to live in a neighborhood that you don't feel comfortable going out in at night, or to be fighting for a job that you have a degree in and you can't get hired for," said Christie, 30, a clerk-typist and mother of a 2-year-old.

The women, drawn from Philadelphia and its Pennsylvania suburbs, talked Wednesday night of struggling to pay for gas, buying the cheapest cuts of meat, skipping student-loan payments, saying "no" to their children. Six of them said they voted for Obama last fall, and four backed Republican Mitt Romney.

The group, whose last names were not made public, watched four clips from Obama's State of the Union speech and thought much of it sounded good - though they'd heard the promises of good-paying jobs countless times before and were skeptical.

Mostly, the women teed off on Washington's familiar partisan dysfunction, its Kabuki.

"It doesn't seem like he has any help from Republicans," said Diane, 51, recently laid off from her job at a bulk-mailing company. She voted for Obama. "Watching it, you see the vice president in the back laughing and clapping, and that other joker, that Republican dude [Speaker John Boehner], just sitting there. And you saw the group, some were standing and clapping and others weren't. That's why nothing's going to happen."

And Democrats play the blocking game when a Republican is in the White House, said Patty, 33, a home health-care aide and an independent who voted for Romney. "There's like no hope," she said. "I don't think they want to work together."

Most thought Obama's proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour was a waste of time - because nobody could live on a job, even a full-time job, paying that little. Some also worried it could cause employers to lay off workers or increase the cost of their goods or services. The women loved the idea of universal preschool, but worried about the cost.

Walmart Moms, identified by the Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies in 2008, shop at the discount superstore at least once a month and have children at home under the age of 18. Momentum Analysis, a Democratic firm, has been studying the group extensively in opinion surveys and focus groups for the last four years.

Like swing voters overall, the Walmart Moms voted for Obama in 2008, swung to the Republicans in the 2010 midterm elections, and returned to Obama last year. They are estimated to constitute 14 percent to 17 percent of the American electorate.

Pollsters who have studied them say Walmart Moms are between the ages of 18 and 44. More than two-thirds of them are white, 45 percent have household incomes below $60,000, and slightly fewer than half are college-educated.

When pressed by the moderator, the focus group of women in Bala Cynwyd could not identify a coherent Republican message, or sense of what the party's congressional wing was offering as an alternative to Obama's proposals. The one exception: Several said "cutting taxes" or keeping them low was a top GOP priority.

Most were not sympathetic to illegal immigrants and their desire for a path to citizenship. They said there were higher priorities in tough times than tackling climate change, as Obama advocated in his speech. There was broad consensus in the group to act against gun violence: "It's a commonsense issue at this point," said Katie, 36, a Republican who works as a resource manager.

Beneath all the pessimism, there were sprigs of hope that the pols might eventually work together because the problems are so big.

"At some point, it feels like it's going to have to bottom out," Christie said. "People are going to realize that something serious needs to be done."

Still, most agreed that the Washington logjam was unlikely to break.

"Any time I'm positive, [stuff] happens," Diane said.


Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

at tfitzgerald@phillynews.com or 215-854-2718, or follow on Twitter @tomfitzgerald. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.

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