With persistent economic woes gripping much of the electorate, President Obama today pivots his re-election pitch towards women voters, who backed his candidacy enthusiastically in 2008 and may prove more influential in 2012.
In an address before the National Women’s Law Center, Obama will celebrate the role of women in the civil rights movement and the steps he’s taken to keep their spirit alive, organizers say.
But despite advancements in gender equality under Obama — including the appointment of two women to the Supreme Court and enactment of a health care overhaul that provides insurance parity and free preventive care services for women — polls show he and Democrats face a difficult path towards rekindling active political support in the months ahead.
“I think there will be currency for Obama when women learn about what he’s achieved, but I do believe that many women have no idea about the concrete accomplishments that have been secured over the last few years,” said National Women’s Law Center co-president Marcia Greeberger.
“It’s very understandable that there isn’t a lot of understanding about these details and knowledge about these details, especially on the part of women,” she added, “when they’re having to struggle with jobs and family responsibilities, sometimes multiple jobs. There are just so many hours in the day.”
In 2008, Obama won 56 percent of the women vote, 13 points more than won by Republican Sen. John McCain, according to the national exit poll. Four years later, support for Obama and Democrats among women has dropped off sharply.
During the 2010 midterm elections, for example, women divided evenly for Democratic and Republican House candidates — 49 percent to 49 percent — the best showing for Republicans among women in a national U.S. House vote since 1982.
“Women are very concerned about the health care bill that was passed a year ago, concerned about the federal government taking decision making from them as the head of the household as it comes to making decisions about health care,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the highest ranking Republican woman in Congress.
Women small business owners, she added, “see firsthand how the federal government is making it more difficult on them to start businesses. So there’s going to be a real battle for the women’s vote in 2012.”
The most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll found that just 48 percent of women said they approve of how Obama has handled his job, while 50 percent said they outright disapprove.
But there are signs women could actually be helping to keep Obama’s approval — and his chances for a second term — afloat.
Women have a more favorable view of Obama’s job handling than men by eight points, according to the latest ABC poll.
Moreover, when asked who they trust more to do a better job creating jobs, women choose Obama over congressional Republicans by a 45 to 37 margin. The numbers are even higher among younger and minority women. Men trust the GOP more, by a 43 to 35 gap.
“I would give him a B,” said third-year University of Pennsylvania medical student Caroline Nelson, 27, who voted for Obama in 2008 but said she’s become frustrated and disinterested with him since.
“I think that he compromised a couple of the issues I thought he was really going to push for, especially the environment which is an important one to me,” Nelson said. “And I also think that the way he handled the debt crisis, he gave in a little more quickly than I would have liked to see. I know he’s working with really tough opposition, but I think that our credit rating and stuff like that he’s partly responsible.”
Still, Nelson said she’s likely to vote for Obama again, and maybe even donate a small amount to his campaign, two signs that despite any disillusionment among Obama’s ’08 supporters, many may just need extra encouragement to turn out again.
“Women are very important to this campaign. That’s why they are one of the core constituencies we’re focusing on in our outreach,” said an Obama campaign official of the dynamic.
Obama volunteers have been conducting women-to-women phone banks in targeted markets to talk about legislation or accomplishments that have a specific benefit for women, the official said.
The campaign is also compiling a list of surrogates, led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, to drum up support for Obama among women voters on the campaign trail.
“How about the very first bill my husband signed into law – it was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to help women get equal pay for equal work,” Mrs. Obama told a crowd of mostly women supporters at a Jacksonville, Fla., fundraiser last month.
“Why did he do this? Because, as he put it, we believe that here in America, there are no second-class citizens in our workplace,” she said. The law allows women to sue their employers for alleged pay discrimination even years after the fact.
Lilly Ledbetter, 73, whose pay discrimination case inspired the law, is also likely to be at least an unofficial surrogate for Obama on the trail. ”I’ve never been so proud of anything,” she said, telling of her travels to college campuses nationwide to talk it up.
“It sent a strong message to the women, minorities and working families across this nation,” she said. “I am just working as hard as I can to hope to try to keep Obama in office another term so he can keep what he started, because in my opinion it really takes two terms for a president to succeed in all their goals.”