Numbers do not have emotions. Data do not cry. All the economic statistics from Washington and New York — no matter how discouraging they may be — do not bleed. Human beings feel pain. Human beings live with heartache.

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

Never was this more obvious to me than last Monday night in Philadelphia, while watching a two-hour focus group of 11 area voters conducted by respected pollster Peter Hart for the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. It is truly a shame that the nation’s political and financial leadership was not there to hear for themselves the heartache and the fear in these voters’ voices.

The words of two married mothers, Patricia Mitchell, 45, who tends bar and voted for John McCain, and Cheryll Darby, 36, who was laid off in July from the company where she had worked for 11 years and who voted for President Barack Obama, were both honestly painful and painfully honest.

Asked by Hart about the economy, Mitchell spoke of her tips being “way down” and about her husband, a carpenter and former Marine, who every day seeks work unsuccessfully: “On Craigslist this morning, there were over 100 postings of a blue-collar tradesman looking for work, and there was one posting for a carpenter.”

How had she been affected personally? “My family is facing homelessness right now, which I never imagined could ever happen … sorry,” Patricia answered with understandable emotion.

Darby, who told of one of her brothers being laid off and another finding a job after nine months of looking, expressed her deepest concern for her father, soon to be 59, whose unemployment benefits are about to expire. He looks for work, but employers “can hire someone who’s 25 or 30 and will work for less.” As the oldest of five, she’s grateful that “our parents struggled our whole lives to provide for us … look they could live with me, but I don’t want them to have to lose their home.”

No doubt touched by the emotional candor of Mitchell and Darby, the men in the group spoke of their own economic setbacks — of being forced into early retirement, having work cut from full time to part time, of clients unable to pay them and reducing their standard of living.

The group, seven Obama voters and four McCain supporters, strongly agreed that unemployment is the nation’s most urgent problem. There was virtually no enthusiasm for the sending of more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Bill Kelly, 62, an independent and retired shipping supervisor who voted for Obama, spoke for many. “I guess we didn’t learn anything from Vietnam,” he said, comparing Afghanistan to the war in which he served.

The villains in our contemporary drama? Congress — both parties — and Wall Street, especially AIG. Republican John Rounce, 63, a small-business consultant, criticized the Obama administration for the financial bailout “throwing money at the same people who caused the problem.”

But Congress, both parties, has political halitosis. If health-care reform, which was overwhelmingly favored, fails, the blame will be not on Obama, who proposed it, but rather on both parties in the “dysfunctional” Congress, whose members are faulted for being “self-serving” and consumed with “self-interest.”

When Hart asked whom they saw as “the face” of Congress, Lisa Romantino, 44, a medical secretary and Obama backer, offered “Satan.” With 11 months until Election Day, 2010 doesn’t look like a good year for incumbents.

The Philadelphia group still mostly roots for Obama to succeed and continues to give him the benefit of the doubt. As Darby summed up, “The excitement is gone, but the hope is not gone.”

But more than any political story, the message from Philadelphia in these harsh economic times is of the real grief and personal sorrow these Americans and their families are suffering. Would-be leaders who ignore their fellow citizens’ pain or who fail to respond will deserve the unemployment they could face.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.