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After the shutdown: For some voters, rising disgust with Washington

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the continuing government shutdown during a news conference from the White House Briefing Room in W
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the continuing government shutdown during a news conference from the White House Briefing Room in W

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and Congress may have settled the U.S. fiscal impasse for now, but some voters say politicians will have an even tougher job restoring the public's shattered faith in government.

Low- and middle-income mothers in focus groups conducted as the showdown ended on Wednesday night used words like disgusted, angry, frustrated and embarrassed when discussing the stalemate that shut down the government and brought it to the verge of a historic default.

The political behavior seemed familiar to the young mothers, so-called Wal-Mart moms who do not pay much attention to politics but whose support can help swing a close election.

"They are acting like children, toddlers, saying 'I don't have to talk to you,'" said Courtney, the mother of a 2- and a 6-year-old. Added Cass, a mother of three children: "Someone decided to take their ball and go home."

The two focus groups - one in Nashville, Tennessee, and one in Kansas City, Missouri - consisted of a group of swing voters with at least one child at home who shop at Wal-Mart at least once a month. It was organized by pollsters and watched by journalists in Washington who could use only the first names of participants.

The women expressed a deepening level of disgust with Washington politicians, never a popular group to begin with, and a fear the country's political chasms were becoming permanent.

"We're coming to an unrepairable great divide. Compromise is no longer in their vocabulary," said Julia, the mother of a 6-year-old in Nashville.

Most said they would still vote in 2014, when Democrats will try to hold power in the Senate and Republicans in the House of Representatives, but they would be more careful to look for empathetic candidates who could compromise with political foes.

"It would have to be someone who wasn't polarizing," said Jaclyn in Nashville, the mother of a 2-year-old.

'BROKEN TRUST'

The pollsters said the women had developed a harsher view of Washington since the fiscal crisis. The women in Kansas City also participated in a focus group in February after Obama's State of the Union address.

"Trust has been broken between these women and D.C., and there is a permanence to it," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who organized the focus groups along with Democratic pollster Margie Omero. "The patience of Americans has run out."

At the White House, Obama on Thursday acknowledged the shutdown had precipitated a loss of faith in the political system.

"The American people are completely fed up with Washington," Obama said. "We've all got a lot of work to do on behalf of the American people, and that includes the hard work of regaining their trust."

The "Wal-Mart moms" - a group of swing voters first identified in 2008 and tracked since then for Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, by Newhouse and Omero - account for about 14 percent to 17 percent of the electorate.

As a whole they are about two-thirds white, mostly between the ages of 18 and 44, and slightly more than half make between $20,000 and $80,000 a year.

The pollsters said the group went for Obama in 2008, backed Republicans during that party's congressional election wins of 2010 and shifted again to Obama in 2012, making them a potentially critical bellwether for next year's midterm elections.

But while national opinion polls have shown more voters blame Republicans for the fiscal showdown than Democrats, most of the focus group participants - split between supporters of Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in the last election - were reluctant to take sides.

"It wasn't just one decision that got us here. It's both sides," said Amber, a mother of two children in Nashville.

A few of the women did blame Republicans and criticized the Tea Party conservatives who demanded changes to Obama's healthcare law in return for supporting a government funding bill.

"It's a law. You can't hold our country hostage just because you don't like it," said Elizabeth in Kansas City. Jeanne in Nashville said Republicans were "pitching a hissy fit."

Many of the women said politicians did not understand their lives and were living in a Washington bubble.

"These moms don't feel like candidates are talking to them," Omero said. "Candidates wanting to win these moms over will have to demonstrate they understand their daily struggles."

(Editing by Fred Barbash and Doina Chiacu)

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