What We Want in a President

Our Interview with CNN's Soledad O'Brien

A Post-Roundtable Conversation With Soledad O'Brien

Soledad O'Brien

Julie Skarratt

After she moderated our election roundtable, the host of CNN's Starting Point with Soledad O'Brien sat down to answer a few of our questions. (First the mother of four checked for texts from her kids and babysitter. "Good," she said, smiling, as she put the phone down and poured a cup of tea. "Everybody still has their eyeballs. Now we can talk.")

Q. What surprises you about this group?
A.
How diverse their voices are. People see themselves as hyphenated, a mixed combination of philosophies trying to fit into a label. They describe themselves as "left-leaning Republican" or "a Democrat thinking about Romney." But I was also struck by the degree to which I heard what I would call the meh vote. There was not a lot of love for either candidate.

Q. These women really wanted to talk about the economy. Why?
A.
Everything is about funding. We live in a zero-sum game. Spending on one thing means less money for another. They want very practical solution-oriented information, like, "How will we get jobs?" And while the tenor of the room changed when we talked about social issues, even those topics related back to the economy. You can see the contradictions. The list of what people want is long and expensive. And yet it's driving a sense of frustration and a tone of anger, sometimes even hostility.

When people say, "Well, special education services are expensive," the next questions, for this group, are, "Expensive how? What do you give up? What do we believe? What is the cost of our values?" Today, we had moms in the room with kids with Down syndrome, talking about questions like, "Should parents have the right to abort? How do we calculate the cost of educating that child?" These are policy issues.

Q. One mom resents seeing loan forgiveness while she is paying off $300,000 in student loans. Another is frustrated that she keeps up with her mortgage while others have walked away. Are we seeing bailout fatigue?
A.
For me, that's about, "Who is watching out for the middle class? We are the ones who have done everything right. We haven't done anything crazy. We picked out the homes we could actually afford. Who is paying attention to us?" I looked around the room and saw every head nodding. That crossed all boundaries.

Q. Several moms mentioned being aggravated that they couldn't get past the candidates' spin to get the information they need to make a decision. Do you think that means they are frustrated with you and others in the media too?
A.
Not at all. I am a hopeful person. When I heard that, I took notes, and thought, "What a great opportunity." They were very clear in saying, "The media needs us to help navigate what is baloney and what is accurate." That was a wow moment for me. They don't want to hear us chatting about the issues. They want specifics. They want to hear things like, "There are four things wrong with this ad." So I feel like they're giving us marching orders. These people want a service!

Q. What do you see as the major differences between this election and 2008's?
A.
People are hurting and scared. There is a tenor of divisiveness. That's why I think there is tremendous hope in all this hyphenization of identities. Congress may be very polarized, but the people who say things like, "I am a left-leaning GOP" are much more real. They have a better sense of themselves than the false categories we put them in. So in this election, they will be asking, "Which candidate is articulating for me?"

Q. The election is a huge story. How important will it be in your life in the next few months?
A.
In many ways, it's not a big part of my life at all. I'm just like these women, and my life is about taking care of my kids, bringing them to school when I can, picking them up when I can. My oldest is 11 now, so I'm thinking about things like sending them to college. So not as a journalist but as an individual, I'd like to hear where the candidates stand. What are their values? Is what they are telling me consistent with the way they've actually behaved in the past? I identify with these women. We're all in the same boat. And as one of the moms said, we all put our families first.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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