WaPo's Dan Balz and Phil Rucker sat down with 17 Iowans -- 11 Democrats and six Republicans -- to gauge their opinions on topics ranging from the current state of politics to the possible presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. One question the duo asked both groups stood out to us: How would you describe President Obama -- in a single word?
The most surprising part of the responses? They were strikingly similar.
Here are are handful of the one-word(ish) answers offered by the Democratic focus group: "surviving,” “embattled," "challenged," "penned in," and “stymied." And here are some of the one-words offered by Republicans: "struggling, "partisan," and "in over his head."
While you can clearly distinguish the partisanship -- "penned in" versus "in over his head", for example -- behind the responses, it's also clear that there is a broader feeling of stagnation and discontent with that stagnation moving through both parties at the moment. (Asked to choose a single word to describe the state of the country, Republicans and Democrats alike in the focus groups chose "divided" and "gridlock".)
Even among those who have a more clearly partisan view of President Obama, that sentiment holds. Take Christine Taylor, a Republican activist and physician, whose one word description of President Obama was "traitor". Despite that decidedly harsh description of the President, Taylor's thoughts about the state of politics in the country could have easily come out of the mouth of a Democrat. "I think the country is frustrated because people want things to change and they see gridlock in D.C. and they see no real movement, no real change," she said. "People are digging in… they see two sides fighting and nobody solving.”
Taylor's comments are fascinating. On the one hand, she believes President Obama is a "traitor" who "has an absolute disregard for the Constitution and the rights for the United States citizens." On the other, she acknowledges that people are frustrated because they want change and simply see the two parties in the nation's capitol fighting without solving many (or any) problems.
What do comments by people like Taylor -- and the other folks Dan and Phil talked to -- tell us about the mindset of people in the country? That frustration with the ways things are is rampant. The difference between the two parties is built not on whether that frustration exists but rather who is to blame for it. For Taylor, who quite clearly feels passionately about Obama, the blame lies at the president's feet. Ray Porterfield, a Democrat and automotive services manager, feels that same frustration but put the blame elsewhere. "He is stymied at every turn, primarily by Congress," Porterfield says of Obama. "The simplest duties of the presidency, he has political enemies trying to stop him from doing anything whatsoever.”
The other thing the focus groups seem to suggest is that there would be space for a candidate -- of either party -- who was able to sell a message of a problem-solver with an approach fundamentally different than has been taken in the past. Of course, that was the message Obama used in 2008. It worked in the campaign. Not so much in governance.