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By Patrick Healy and Adrian J. Rivera
Mr. Healy is the deputy Opinion editor. Mr. Rivera is an editorial assistant in Opinion.
How do independent voters feel about President Biden and America after his first year in office? Let’s put it this way: His weak approval ratings might go up if he pulled a Trump and just declared that America was moving on from the pandemic and he was going all in against inflation and high gas prices. Never mind about voting rights or avoiding another Jan. 6. It’s the economy, Joe.
So it seemed listening to a new Times Opinion focus group with 14 independent voters, who are far more worried about their finances than about Covid’s impact, as the transcript of the conversation below shows. Asked what they held Mr. Biden responsible for and what they would tell him if they had the chance, the independents emphasized energy prices, the economy and the importance of being a moderate, as well as a desire to avoid Covid mandates and lockdowns. The virus might not be done with America, but several of these independents are done with the virus.
The focus group was made up of people who had voted at least once for President Barack Obama and at least once for President Donald Trump. They were less furious about the state of the country than pessimistic about the future and dismissive about whether Mr. Biden and either party could improve things. “They are resigned rejecters,” Frank Luntz, a longtime strategist for Republican candidates, who led the discussion, said afterward. Senator Joe Manchin came in for some praise, Anthony Fauci came in for some criticism, and most were lukewarm on both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump running again.
Times Opinion has begun convening focus groups as part of a new series, America in Focus, to explore what voters think about the country and to expand the reach of opinion journalism to include people who often feel voiceless in the national conversation. We held focus groups with Democrats and Republicans recently about Jan. 6 and the state of democracy.
Independent voters were decisive in the 2020 election, favoring Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump by a 13-point margin, according to exit polls; these voters are now souring on Mr. Biden more than any other group, according to a new Gallup poll.
As is customary in focus groups, our role as moderators was not to argue with or fact-check the speakers, and some participants expressed opinions not rooted in facts. The discussions are led by professional focus group leaders; with guidance from Times Opinion, Mr. Luntz chose the participants and led this discussion. (Times Opinion paid him for the work, and he has done similar work over the years for political candidates and partisan groups.)
This transcript has been edited for length. An audio recording and video clips of the session are also below. As is common with focus groups, the speakers’ last names are not included. They provided their ages, race or ethnicity and job background.
Frank Luntz: Give me a word or phrase to describe life in America today.
Scott (53, white, Florida, works in health care): Divided.
Janet (66, white, Ohio, customer service): Dismal.
Julia (50, white, Illinois, small-business owner): Disappointment.
Don (36, multiracial, Georgia, elementary school educator): Indescribable.
Tenae (44, Black, California, director of security dispatch): New normal.
Nick (43, white, Pennsylvania, merchandise designer): Burned out.
Azariah (38, Black, New York, hospitality): Stressful.
Travis (45, white, Kansas, corporate finance): Lost.
Frank Luntz: Sounds like things are pretty tough for the country. Do you guys agree with that? What’s going on here?
Tenae: I said “new normal.” So let me explain that. We have never, as a nation, experienced anything like this, as far as the virus, the variants of it. So it causes a lot of chaos. There’s misinformation out there. I think it causes a lot of people to be angry. There’s more domestic violence. There’s more road rage. There’s more killings. There’s a lot that’s happening because people don’t know how to actually deal with this or they’re in disbelief.
Nick: You know, we’ve been promised a lot by past politicians, and it just seems that nothing ever changes.
Janet: It changes. It gets worse. I have a grandson. He’s on the autism spectrum, and I’m worried about what’s happening at school. Do you wear a mask? Don’t you wear a mask? I don’t know what the future holds. It’s scary. And I’m 66, so I have seen this country in lots of ups and downs, and I feel this is the lowest point in my lifetime.
“This is the lowest point in my lifetime.”
“And I’m 66, so I have seen this country — lots of ups and downs. And I feel this is the lowest point in our — in my lifetime.” “How many of you agree with that statement? Raise your hands if you agree with that statement that this is the lowest point in your lifetime. Julia and then Don and then Alice, please tell me why, because that’s significant. Julia.” “The inflation is out of control. The gas prices — out of control. Pandemic — it’s out of control. Disaster on our borders — I mean, everything is bad and getting worse. And foreign policy — terrible. The Afghanistan disaster — I mean, it’s just terrible.” “Don, why is this the worst time in your life?” “Given the fact that I’m a father and also the fact that I’m an educator, as well. It’s funny Janet mentioned that, because that’s the angle I was going to go. I hate the fact that kids can’t just be kids anymore. I feel like the P.P.E. is definitely preventing that. And it is a scary time for even my daughter to come up. So therefore, that’s why I stated what I did.” “Alice, why so negative?” “OK, it’s so negative because I think they’ve taken us back to cave man style — cave man time. Meaning this, a caveman, where you would walk around with a club and hit you over the head — ‘I want what you have, and if you don’t give me’ — whether it be money, they steal from you. This is what they’re doing — I’m not saying they — but this is what’s happening. You’re not even safe to walk around and go to the train station, because somebody might throw you off the train, OK? Somebody’s going to try to take what you have in your pocket because they can’t get it. So this is — they regre — it’s a regression. We got to move forward.” “Anyone else think this is the worst time in your life for this country? Tenae and then, OK, Jim.” “Oh, sorry, sorry.” “Go ahead.” “I think it’s just very chaotic and it’s a testing time for us all. And I think that these times will kind of reflect on the issue of how we respond. We’re being tested, and everyone is uncertain, with illness, sickness and just being up in the air, in limbo. And it’s a really trying time for everybody, everybody across the board.” “Scott.” “Well, when I said that we were divided before, this is the first time in my lifetime that the differences — there’s just no compromise right now. It’s either you believe this or you believe that. And there’s really nothing in the middle right now. And that’s what’s causing a lot of the fight and the hatred in this country.” “A friend of mine mentioned that we can’t even get to the actual issues that are all really dividing us and things that’s — where we would generally — if you and I were playing basketball, if we’re trying to agree on the rules, it would be a give and take. But now it’s — before we’re even together, we’re already fighting with each other, much less talking about the rules of the actual game, to y’all’s point exactly. Real quick, I thought that when Alice was talking about the caveman thing, where people were just taking and getting — I can agree with that from a certain subset of the population. Because I’ve had my bike stolen here in Austin, Texas, in a very gentrified neighborhood, four different times in the last seven, eight months. I mean, it’s just like people are chaotic. Things are kind of chaotic. They feel like there’s no rules, really.”
Frank Luntz: Raise your hands if you agree with that statement, that this is the lowest point in your lifetime.
[Six of 14 raise their hands.]
Alice (60, Latina, New York, supervisor for homeless services): I think they’ve taken us back to cave man time, where you would walk around with a club. “I want what you have.” You’re not even safe to walk around and go to the train station, because somebody might throw you off the train, OK? It’s a regression.
Jim (59, Asian, California, office manager): We’re being tested, and everyone is uncertain.
Dickie (38, white, Texas, financial analyst): When Alice was talking about the cave man thing, I can agree with that. I’ve had my bike stolen here in Austin, in a very gentrified neighborhood, four different times in the last seven, eight months. Things are kind of chaotic. I feel like there’s no rules, really.
Independent Focus Group on Biden’s First Year
Frank Luntz: How many of you think that the level of crime is up in America today, versus a year ago?
[Twelve people raise their hands, all but Don and Scott.]
Julia: I live in downtown Chicago. I’m sure you’ve heard on the news what’s been happening here. The crime in Chicago is completely out of control.
Mark (51, white, Texas, business manager): I think it’s kind of common sense when you’re trying to defund the police, that you take away from their budgets — logically, the crime is going to go up.
Frank Luntz: Who do you blame for that? Who’s responsible?
Kristine (50, white, Arizona, construction project manager): Local officials.
Mark: And the D.A.s are just letting it happen.
Jules (42, white, Virginia, stay-at-home parent): The D.A.s. Yes.
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