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Pennsylvania Voters: Depression Where Obama Inspired Hope Two Years Ago

Monday, September 20, 2010

Voters at the Wilkes-Barre Farmer's Market don't blame Obama for the bad economy, but they aren't noticing any help from him either. (Andrea Bernstein)

Depressed. That certainly describes Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, a former coal-area that now, as one local once explained it to me, “scratches to get by. Where I’ll sell you pizza, if you buy my tires.” But it also describes the mood of the voters, who, less than two years after “Yes, We Can” swept the nation, pretty much believe, “No, We Can’t.”

Take semi-conductor plant worker Sandy (who’d only give her first name). “Nothing’s really going to change that much, that’s how I look at it," she told me. "I wish it would, but I don’t think it.” She voted for Obama, and like a lot of voters in the Wilkes-Barre farmer’s market last Thursday, she doesn't blame Obama for the area's problems -- but she doesn't think he's done much to fix them either. “Well, I think you have to give him a chance, you can’t correct things in just a few years," she said. "Nobody’s perfect.”

Things pretty much went downhill from there for Obama and the Democrats. Don’t get me wrong. People were fairly clear in believing that the troubles started under George W. Bush, and there was a lot more forbearance than you’d think for Obama, who was variously described as “smart,” “a family man,” and “trying hard.” But in this swing county that voted for Obama after a lot of gnashing of teeth about his race and his middle name, almost no one had any idea what Obama or the Democrats had done on just about anything.

Health care reform? “I’m not familiar with it,” was the common refrain. “Everywhere I go, I see my relatives and they say ‘I got laid off, I got laid off.’ Nothing’s happened in the last two years,” Spanish teacher Maria Poggi told me. “And for health care the same thing. Today my husband’s got a meeting about his health care because we can’t afford it because all of a sudden the price went up. Even that’s not working. I even laughed and said to him, I thought we were supposed to be having free health care. He says ‘oh no. We’re paying for it.’”

Most of the economic stimulus consisted of tax cuts. Did you get a tax cut? I asked retiree William Holeana. “No. My taxes went up.”  Did the stimulus help? “Helps the wealthy – not us poor people.” (Many people confuse the economic stimulus with the TARP bailout for banks.)

What about Obama’s new plan, to spend $50 billion on airports and roads ? “It should all be fixed,” said musician Debbie Horushuk, an Obama voter. I asked her, you think that would be a good thing to spend money on? “No. But they should be fixed." How should they be fixed without money? “I don’t know how they should be fixed without money but we need money to fix the damn roads.”

None of this translates well for local Democrats, including Joe Sestak, who famously beat Arlen Specter in the primary for U.S. Senate or Paul Kanjorsk, who has represented this county in Congress for more than a quarter century. Even one elderly African American man, who told me that his family equates Republicans with trouble, said maybe Kanjorski had been around too long. 

[ + Hear Andrea talk about her reporting in Pennsylvania on The Takeaway ]

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