In Hard Economic Times, Obama Woos Female Voters

President Obama is hoping to convince female voters to go to the voting booth in November.

President Obama hopes to convince female voters -- like those who turned out for his campaign swing in Reno, Nev., in 2008 -- to go to the polls in November. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

President Obama will spend Thursday in Seattle talking with women about the economy at a backyard town hall meeting, part of his last big campaign push before the midterm elections.

Female voters typically favor Democrats, and that gender gap can push a Democratic candidate to victory. But women have to go to the polls for that to happen.

Obama is trying to convince women that in these tough economic times — between their jobs, schoolwork, parenting and other duties — going to the polls has to be on their priority lists as well.

As part of Obama's Northwest swing, he visited Portland, Ore., on Wednesday, where some of those potential female voters juggling competing priorities were found at a university day-care center.

Portland State University's Helen Gordon Child Center is only for students and staff who have children. These people are doing OK, but their success feels tenuous.

Emily Partine was leaving her 2-year-old daughter in the toddlers' room, where kids were painting in the corner.

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Earlier this year, there was much being written and said about the 2010 elections marking something of a "year of the woman." But NPR's Ari Shapiro got a different story from Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

"To continue keeping her here in day care, I have to go to school, taking at least eight credits while I work full time, and I'm a single mom, so it's hard," Partine said.

That's a full-time job, a full-time course load and single parenting. She would prefer not to be a student, but her job doesn't pay enough to afford day care without the student discount. Partine has sent out dozens of resumes looking for a higher-paying job, with no luck.

Rebecca Albright, the lead teacher, is spending her eighth year at the child-care center.

"I had thought that when I got my master's degree, I'd be making more money. But with the recession, I've stayed in the same position, mainly to have the excellent health care benefits," Albright said.

Albright has a 22-month-old daughter with special needs.

"She had brain surgery in July, so most of our money — any extra money that we had up until then — we were just saving to sort of get us through the recovery and the medical costs of the brain surgery," she said. "But little things that shouldn't be the end of the world — like we just got rear-ended — have been a really big deal, because we don't have the money for the deductible. We don't have any excess income right now."

Albright said any day that they can pay the bills is a great day.

She's not used to living like this. She and her husband are from well-educated families, but right now they are well below their parents' standard of living. She doesn't sound self-pitying.

Instead, she says, she feels bad for the students who work at this day-care center, then graduate without a job and without a way to pay back student loans. Many of them come back and work as substitute teachers.

"Even people that have advanced degrees in child development are still here with master's degrees working for $20[000], $25,000 a year," she said.

Professor Mary King of Portland State, a labor economist who studies women and the economy, says men were hit by this recession early on. Construction and manufacturing tend to employ men, and those were the industries that suffered first.

"What we're seeing now is the impact on the public sector," she said. "Women are huge in the public sector — teachers, clerical workers — so they're being laid off or having their hours cut."

King says Obama administration economic policies have helped. For example, the White House pushed a bill to keep teachers from losing their jobs. But preventing job losses isn't the same as creating jobs.

"The backfill into state and local government just keeps what we thought of as the status quo, but absolutely those keep women's jobs," she said. "And it's the same argument that Obama faces with the stimulus as a whole.

"Yes, there was an impact, but not so big that people perceive it. They don't realize what would've happened if that spending hadn't occurred."

This is the case Obama will make during the backyard town hall meeting in Seattle on Thursday.

His National Economic Council released a report Thursday arguing that the White House's economic policies have benefited women in the past two years.

The report points to the first bill President Obama signed -– the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

It also mentions the health care bill and the small-business bill, among others. In a conference call with reporters, presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett spun that report into a partisan political argument.

"If the Republicans in Congress have their way, many of the economic policies that have been helping millions of American women will no longer be in place," she said.

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