Omaha’s diverse voters good indicator of Obama support


September 23rd, 2011

Omaha, NE – From inner-city residents to suburbanites and even a few farmers, Nebraska’s Second Congressional District is home to a wide range of voters. Three years ago, Barack Obama narrowly carried this district, and under Nebraska law, its one electoral vote. But what do residents think now about how President Obama is doing, and how likely are they to support him again?

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A sampling of busy people stopped in downtown Omaha and asked what they think about President Obama yielded a wide range of opinions.

“I truly admire the man,” said Lee Langseth, citing Obama’s willingness to run in 2008 with so much trouble right in front of his face.

By contrast, Scott Dolton said Obama had fulfilled his negative expectations.

“I guess he’s done sort of what I expected him to do, Unfortunately,” Dolton said with a laugh.

Doug Packard took a middle ground, saying,. “My attitude’s kind of neutral towards him.

“I think the problem’s with both the President and the Congress,” Packard continued. “I don’t think any of them are working together effectively and so we’re in a stalemate and in problems.”

The attitudes of Langseth, Dolton and Packard haven’t changed all that much since the last presidential election. But there is ferment in this swing district.

Some voters’ attitudes are hardening, others have changed, and some are still flux. Beneath the surface, beyond the sound bytes and stereotypes, Second District voters are thinking things over.

Under Nebraska's unique law, the Omaha-based Second District split its vote and gave one electoral vote to Barack Obama. (Image by NET News)

Take Gail Johnston, for example. She grew up in a politically mixed family on a farm near Wolbach, north of Grand Island, and has spent more than two decades in advertising. She’s now a partner in a small, full-service advertising agency in west Omaha. Johnston recalled being attracted to Obama in 2008.

“I think everyone is attracted initially to a dynamic presenter. And Obama was a dynamic presenter,” Johnston said.

But as the campaign progressed, Johnston says she became increasingly concerned about Obama’s attitudes toward taxes and regulations, and wound up voting for John McCain. She said Obama’s presidency, particularly the health care law he signed, confirmed her opposition.

“As a business owner, I don’t necessarily like being told what I have to offer,” Johnston said. “I’m going to offer the best incentive package I can in order to get the best people I can. And I’ve got to be competitive with everybody else to make that happen.

Johnston, a Republican, isn’t dead-set against all government programs designed to help people in a tough economy. Her own sister had to rely on some, temporarily, when she was laid off. But Johnston objects to what she sees as the administration’s attitude of ongoing paternalism.

“All of those government programs are meant to be a safety net,” she said. “The danger is that this administration seems to want to turn them into a hammock.”

Archie Godfrey’s attitudes toward Obama come from a far different perspective. A retired small businessman, Godfrey, 67, got involved as a teenage protestor helping desegregate Omaha’s Peony Park swimming pool in the early 1960s.

He worked on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, then spent many years as a Republican before rejoining the Democrats to support Obama’s campaign.

Godfrey viewed Obama’s victory as the culmination of his own lifetime involvement in the civil rights movement, and a “dream come true.”

“It wasn’t a victory based upon African-Americans vs. whites. It wasn’t even a class situation,” Godfrey said. “It was won on two candidates that expressed their position on their view of American and where we should go, and the majority of Americans voted for the position that I felt parallel with. And that was a wonderful feeling.”

But Godfrey said that that even after the election, opposition to Obama, some of it racially motivated, never let up. And he said the resulting health care policy is an unsatisfying compromise.

“It’s like, okay, you’re hungry, here’s a meal. But I’m going to take away the mashed potatoes and I’m even going to take away the gravy and I’m going to take the peas. The only thing you have is a slab of meatloaf,” said Godfrey. “Well, you’re happy you’re getting fed, but it’s not meatloaf the way Grandma and Mommy used to make it. And so there’s that empty feeling.

But far from diminishing enthusiasm, Godfrey thinks strident opposition to Obama will make supporters more committed.

“It’s going to inflame the base in support for Barack Obama, and they’re going to go to the polls,” he predicted.

But that’s not necessarily the case for independent voters like Sharon Barnes. Barnes, who’s 47, five moved to Nebraska for her husband’s job five years ago, and got involved in the Democrats’ state caucus in 2008. Barnes said she caucused for Hilary Clinton, whom she admired for the determination she had shown in her marriage. When Clinton didn’t get the nomination, Barnes says she took another look at the candidates, and wound up voting for McCain.

“I would have to say at the time a lot of it had to do with national security, the comfort level I had about him being a vet, and somewhat more conservative Values,” she said.

Barnes says Obama’s actions in office have given her some reassurance on national security issues.

“Looking at it now, seeing how he’s handled the crises overseas – Libya and some of the other things – I think he’s made (a) deliberate attempt not to get us involved in anything further than we’ve already been committed to,” she said.

But at least at this point, that’s not enough for Barnes. Her husband’s job disappeared, and while he got another, she recently returned to the workforce as a child care worker, after 17 years as a stay-at-home mom. Barnes says the economy will be an important factor in whether she would consider voting for Obama next year.

“Is there a circumstance by which I would be willing to vote for him? I’d have to see a really drastic change in the amount of jobs,” Barnes said.

If that’s a consideration for enough people in a district where the unemployment rate is half the national average, that could be the bottom line for voters across the nation as well.

This story is produced in partnership with “Need to Know” on PBS. “Need to Know” is made possible by Bernard and Irene Schwartz, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation, The NASDAQ OMX Educational Foundation, James and Merryl Tisch, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Josh and Judy Weston, The Winston Foundation, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS. Corporate funding is provided by Mutual of America.

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