CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For a grocery clerk at my local market, it was not about political strategies or poll numbers. As I judged the fish selection, he leaned across the counter and asked, “Why didn’t he fight?” I didn’t have to ask what he meant. He knows I cover politics, and I knew he was talking about President Obama’s lackluster performance in his first debate with GOP challenger Mitt Romney.
Everywhere I went this weekend, I heard that same question in various forms. As Romney capitalized on his campaign’s new life and Obama recalibrated for the next candidate face-off, the horse race was not the focus of voters for whom that question is still top of mind. They want someone who understands their lives to speak up for them. They thought the president was that person, and now they have their doubts.
Whether you agree with Romney’s views about what’s right and wrong for America, or believe, as some fact-checkers do, that his numbers and statements during the debate didn’t add up, you have to admit he represented his supporters well. Though it appears Big Bird may be cooked, that didn’t slow Romney’s momentum.
Obama, on the other hand, was all but silent on the ideals that drive his supporters — ideals that kept a senior I spoke with registering voters and campaigning despite shaky health. Her blood medicine is cheaper now, and she was able to save her home from foreclosure because of this administration’s policies, she said.
The clerk in the supermarket isn’t one of those business owners constantly mentioned on the campaign trail. But he works hard and is a successful family man. During the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, he was excited to share democracy in action with his son. Romney dismissed “47 percent” of Americans as victims, so why didn’t Obama bother to mention that, he wanted to know.
And where was the topic of women’s health, asked a woman who also told me she thought Obama acted “too cool for school.”
They all recognized the strategy, as wrongheaded as it was, of maintaining a presidential posture and staying above the fray. But they also understood that a presidential debate is the fray, opponents meeting to lay out differing views of how America should work in the next four years and beyond. To have that discussion, both participants have to show up and argue with conviction and passion.
The people who don’t have the millions to donate toward campaign ads or the connections of a lobbyist do have the power of their vote — and they had been enthusiastic about using it to support the person they thought would speak for them. Yet when he had the chance in Denver last week, many felt Obama failed to take seriously the urgency of their cause. How had he somehow managed to look past them?
Whatever happens on Nov. 6, the Obamas will be fine. They won’t have to worry about medical care or mortgages, unemployment or the cost of education. Romney said his 47 percent remarks were wrong and that he cares. And what did President Obama have to say about it? Not much.
Since the harsh reviews of his debate performance came in, the president has been trying to address some of those issues. At a campaign event in Los Angeles on Sunday, he said, “If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void — the lobbyists and the special interests, and the folks who are writing $10 million checks to beat me, and folks who are trying to keep making it harder for you to vote, the politicians in Washington who want to control the health-care choices that women are perfectly capable of making themselves.”
“The values we believe in don’t belong to any one group or one party,” he said. “They’re not black or white, or Asian or Latino or Native American, gay, straight, abled, disabled — they are American values; they belong to all of us.”
The people I spoke with this past weekend were teachers and retirees, moms and dads, a business owner who watches out for the bottom line and, especially, his community. They would like to have heard those words when the president had the attention of the nation.
It’s not that they care so much about what the pundits are saying. They just want the candidate they support to remember those who are counting on him, those with the most at stake.
Though they sometimes feel voiceless, they want the president to speak up for them. And they need him to care as much as they do.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3