Is Uncle Sam helping or hurting economy? Americans are torn
Journalists were dispatched to a dozen states to plumb the mood and temper of the nation, as its people approach one of the most crucial elections in generations
About the pollThe McClatchy-Marist survey of 1,214 adults was conducted June 18-26. Adults 18 and older were interviewed by telephone, and each region of the country was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this landline sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers. The two samples were combined. Results are statistically significant within 3 percentage points. There are 1,023 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within 3.5 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.
Deep into the Great Depression, Americans cried out for help, elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1932 landslide and marshaled in the era of big government. Facing a stagnant, inflation-torn economy in 1980, they rose up in a backlash against that big government by sweeping Ronald Reagan to victory.
Today, despite an ailing economy struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Roosevelt era, people show no signs of uniting behind any bold new approach.
They split along many lines — income, geography, age, ideology. Older people see government with a big role in easing economic pain. Younger people are less inclined to look to Washington, D.C. Conservatives believe paring the federal debt is a top priority; liberals, less so.
Journalists were dispatched to a dozen states to plumb the mood and temper of the nation, as its people approach one of the most crucial elections in generations. At stake is a path toward two distinctly different Americas.
The yen for unity is evident: 86 percent said the economy is a top priority, with support cutting across all ideological and partisan lines. Eighty percent also named the job situation as a top priority. And three of every four people believe it's more important for government to seek compromise.
But here's the 2012 catch: 72 percent of Democrats believe the government should solve the economic problems, compared with 46 percent of Republicans.
The one thing that unites Americans this summer is anxiety about an economy that cannot gain its footing.
In California, self-employed real-estate agent Jefferson McGee is still one of the casualties from the Great Recession. "I was selling seven houses a month before the recession," said the 50-year-old from Sacramento. "Now I'm selling a home every seven months."
In South Carolina, retired teacher Cynthia Carter, 64, of Irmo, summed up her feeling flatly: "This just isn't working out."
Americans rank the economy and jobs at the top of their list of concerns this summer, according to the poll, which probed how Americans feel about the top issues facing the country and how they want to fix them.
They divide, though, on whether they want the government to play an activist role ala FDR, or whether they want to cut back government ala Reagan as a way to stimulate spending by citizens and business.
By one measure, Americans are evenly split over whether they look to the federal government or business to fix the jobs crisis.
By another, there's skepticism about whether government is the answer: 70 percent say cutting spending is the best way to stoke the economy and create jobs, while 27 percent say increased spending is the answer. Even among Democrats, 47 percent support cutting federal spending to help the economy.
Search for answers
The search for solutions begins with the debate over government's role. .
Construction worker Brett Duval, for example, thinks it's critical to get government out of the way to get the economy back on track.
"The only thing our government needs to do is to defend America and fight wars. That's it," said the 28-year-old father of three from Orlando, Fla.
In Poplar Bluff, Mo., community-college teacher William T. White, 56, wants the government to do more, not less.
"The government didn't go far enough last time," he said of the $831 billion stimulus package of spending and tax cuts enacted in 2009. "I think you have to spend money to get out of these things, and the government has more money than we do."
The back and forth, talking past one another, two sides that keep failing to meet, characterizes much of the American mood today. Government's the problem, government's the solution. Spend more, spend less. Tax the wealthy more, don't tax the wealthy more.
These polarized opinions have been chiseled into the American psyche like rarely before, reinforced by like-minded strangers on chat sites or commentators readily available on the Internet and cable television.
And they feed the nation's politics, sending resolute representatives to Congress, where they lurch from confrontation to confrontation, unable to agree on a budget or taxes, threatening shutdowns or credit defaults.
Where to draw the line? There's no consensus, and no indication that one is about to form. The era of consensus government appears, if not dead, at least dying.
Nearly three of every four Americans want their representatives to compromise to find solutions to these economic challenges, according to the McClatchy-Marist poll.
"They need to work for compromise, except for some bedrock issues," said Diana Doll, 73, of Modesto, Calif. "There are areas of wisdom in all the political parties. They need to combine all those wisdoms."
But a vocal minority of 25 percent — including 40 percent of Republicans — want to stand on principle, regardless of whether that means gridlock that could lead to higher taxes, a government shutdown, or higher federal debt.
To Donna Frazier, 59, a retired schoolteacher from Excelsior Springs, Mo., who considers herself lucky because she has her retirement benefits, it's time to look out for everyone else.
"Everybody ought to stand on principle until there's bloodshed," she said. "At this point in time, these guys are going to have to get together and do something because there are some folks dying hard and fast out there."
Frazier's view is widely shared, and the nationwide survey dramatically illustrated how the American political mood has changed in recent years.
For generations, Americans accepted compromise to make the economy hum. The willingness to give and get became the political engine that allowed the United States to become a more prosperous country in the 20th century. New ideas may have been born and nurtured in turmoil, but much of America ultimately came to accept them, and they usually worked to cushion the United States from deep depressions and abject poverty.
The McClatchy survey and interviews illustrated how Americans now live in a very different political era, one with no easy solutions in plain sight.