RICHMOND, Va. -- On the cusp of the 2012 elections, The Associated Press interviewed dozens of Americans to try to gauge the economic mood of the nation. People were asked about jobs, housing, gas prices, retirement and other issues. Among them was Vicki Williams, 47, of Mechanicsville, Va., outside Richmond. Williams feels secure in her job as an occupational therapist for a school district. Her view of the economy has brightened. Yet she worries that the nation has drifted away from a political culture that once seemed more inclined to help the needy.
Williams says she can see the economy getting better, little by little.
She knows more people who have found jobs in recent months, particularly those with skills and advanced degrees in business or health care. And she sees more friends confident enough in the economy to invest in long-delayed home improvement work.
"People aren't as fearful about any minute they will lose their job," Williams says.
At the same time, she's disheartened by what she sees as a more polarized nation. It typically happens when Williams, who backs President Barack Obama, talks politics with neighbors who support Mitt Romney.
"When we have conversations about helping others out, the attitude is, `Anybody that's received any kind of assistance from the government in any way is just a taker.' Whereas from my experience, I've seen families I work with have to use government assistance for specific things ... and then are able to then get themselves back on their feet and maybe help someone else."
Average pay in the United States isn't keeping up with inflation, and some people Williams knows are barely getting by on their paychecks. They're one medical crisis away from a financial catastrophe. As a health care professional, she also knows people who rely on Medicaid and other public aid and would be vulnerable to federal cuts.
She says she's fortunate not to have needed government help herself. Williams remained employed throughout the recession even as many states and localities cut jobs.
"People will always need therapy," she says. "My field is in demand."
Together with her husband, an Army reservist and military contractor, Williams has maintained a comfortable upper-middle class lifestyle. They have two children: One is in college; the other is working on an internship and attending college classes.
She's kept up contributions to her 401(k) and doesn't fret about retirement. The couple owns a home that's held its value. This year, they had hardwood floors installed in the kitchen and bathroom.
"The houses in our neighborhood are selling," she says. "If we wanted to get out, we would make a nice profit."
In her view, the president doesn't deserve all the blame for the still-weak economy or high unemployment, now at 7.8 percent. She wishes Republicans and Democrats would work more cooperatively to strengthen the economy.
"My dream for America," Williams says, "is that we'll go back to our core values of taking care of other people and looking out for other people instead of just looking out for ourselves."