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Magazine / PUBLIC OPINION

A Season Of Discontent

Few Americans trust anything or anyone beyond their own family to help them weather hard times, the latest Allstate/National Journal poll shows.

January 16, 2010

One year after President Obama took office, the green shoots of optimism that accompanied his inauguration are withering, pummeled by gale-force discontent and anxiety over the prolonged recession, a new Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll indicates.

 

Despite some recent signs of economic recovery, the proportion of Americans who say that the country is moving in the wrong direction has reached its highest level since the George W. Bush era. In the latest Heartland Monitor poll, respondents expressed little trust in any institution beyond their own family to help them navigate the financial rapids--giving government, major corporations, and financial institutions all dismal grades. Only a little more than one-third of Americans predict that their personal financial situation will improve over the next year.

And although most people still believe that Obama's agenda will eventually benefit the country, his approval rating has fallen to 47 percent amid a widespread consensus that Washington's response to the downturn has so far helped the wealthy and powerful more than it has average families. Shirley McCarter, a homemaker and poll respondent in Altus, Okla., encapsulated that view with a brisk verdict on the government's agenda: "It's not helping the little guy," she said. "It almost seems like rewarding the people who made the bad decisions."

Others have reached more-positive judgments about Washington's direction under Obama. In fact, a plurality of those surveyed say that the massive stimulus plan that Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress approved last winter has benefited the economy. Yet, in most respects, the survey offers a primer on the political price a president pays for sustained economic hardship.

What's more, the poll underscores how many lives the downturn has disrupted and how the turmoil is deepening Americans' disaffection from all major institutions. Hope was the great lilting anthem of the Obama campaign, but for many people, hope now seems muffled, as if buried beneath snow. Indeed, in this season of discontent, alienation from the nation's public and private leadership appears to be hardening like the frozen winter ground.

This is the fourth Heartland Monitor survey examining how average Americans are navigating through the worst downturn since the Great Depression. The poll, supervised by Ed Reilly and Brent McGoldrick of FD, a communications strategy consulting firm, surveyed 1,200 adults from January 3 through January 7. It has a margin of error of +/-2.8 percentage points.

Like the earlier Heartland Monitor polls, this survey documented the recession's extraordinary reach. Nearly half of those polled say they made "significant reductions" in their spending over the past year. Nearly one-third say they were forced to withdraw money from savings or pension accounts to make ends meet. And 31 percent say they lost a job or were unemployed for a sustained period. Just over one-fifth say that during the past year they went "without health insurance for a sus-tained period."

About one in seven of those surveyed say they fell behind on their mortgage or rent at some point in the past year--and 5 percent say they suffered through foreclosure. Only 23 percent of those polled say they have not "experienced any significant changes in lifestyle or financial security."

Story Continues Below Chart

In follow-up interviews, many respondents spoke with a sharp edge of apprehension about the accumulating strain of extended joblessness or reduced income. In these conversations, the recession seems like a storm that has just grazed some lives, briefly unsettled others, and rattled still others to their foundations.

Randy Howard is a disabled factory worker in Millville, N.J., whose wife works at a Kmart. Her hours have been cut by a fourth, squeezing the family's budget. "How to fix this mess?" Howard asked rhetorically at one point. "I don't really have a clue." Likewise, Shannon McCauley, a Philadelphia homemaker, has seen her husband's employer cut his hours by more than half. Now, she said, he is piecing together part-time jobs to keep the family afloat. McCarter, whose husband is in the military, worries about the family's debt and sees her neighbors anxiously retrenching on small luxuries such as hiring someone to mow the lawn. "We've got a lot of family members who are struggling economically. And they've been struggling for a long time," she said, "but it's hitting much heavier now."

The economic storm has blasted Katiana Strehle. She is out of work, and her family's situation became much more precarious after her husband returned from a stint with the National Guard in Afghanistan and lost his job in the auto industry. A move from Ravena, N.Y., to Tampa, Fla., produced no new opportunities for Strehle or her husband. To make matters worse, she couldn't qualify for unemployment compensation, and her husband's benefits have provided only a thin safety net. "We've had to go through our savings, 401(k) included, and it's very devastating," she said. "We have three children. Has the new government helped us out? No. There's just no place to turn. Things have gotten more and more difficult."

Lessons Not Learned

Although most economists believe that the recession has bottomed out, average Americans are uneasy about the road ahead, the survey found. Asked whether they expect their personal financial situation to improve this year, 37 percent of respondents said yes. But 20 percent said they expect their condition to worsen, and 41 percent said they don't expect much change--hardly a ringing endorsement, given the widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Looking more broadly, just 25 percent of those polled judged that the searing downturn has taught individuals, companies, and government "to make responsible financial decisions." However, 70 percent said that Americans and their institutions have not learned that lesson "because they have not been held accountable for their mistakes."

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that few of those polled express much confidence in any large institution to help them manage the financial ups and downs of their lives. Just 15 percent say they have "a lot" of trust in financial advisers to help them cope with financial risk. Labor unions ranked next in trustworthiness, at 12 percent.

Fewer than one in 10 express "a lot" of confidence in national banks, corporations, or the federal government. Strikingly, about half of those polled say they have no trust in any of those three institutions to help them. "These government plans aren't working out, and these corporations are using the government to their benefit," insisted Scott Holland, whose timber business in Garner, N.C., is bankrupt. "I really don't trust anybody at this point."

In this void, as earlier Heartland Monitor polls found, Americans are largely having to fall back on their own resources. The only alternatives for which majorities express "a lot" of trust to help manage financial risk are close family members (64 percent) and their own efforts (74 percent). "I have no idea who I could turn to in a crisis," said Linda Powell, an insurance claims processor in Wichita, Kan. "Family. That's about the only thing."

These findings suggest that, like most investors' stock portfolios, the nation's economic and governmental institutions still face a long climb to repair the damage from the financial meltdown. Asked how government could regain their trust, respondents focused most on Ross Perot-like themes of streamlining and reform, such as working harder to cut waste from government and standing up to special interests. (Compromising across party lines lagged well behind those alternatives.) For financial institutions, respondents' top choices of actions for restoring trust were paying back federal bailout money as quickly as possible, acknowledging their mistakes, hiring more U.S. workers (even if that reduces profitability), and helping Americans do a better job of managing their finances.

Tarnished Institutions

At the root of the dissatisfaction crackling through the survey is the widespread belief that government's response to the economic crisis mostly benefited affluent individuals and powerful business and financial institutions--the very groups that many respondents blame for the upheaval. "There weren't enough consequences on some of the people who were part of the demise of the banks," said William Fields, a retired engineer and political independent from Villa Hills, Ky.

Who has "benefited most" from "the actions the federal government has taken to respond to the financial crisis over the last 12 months?" Three-quarters of those polled say it has been Big Business or the rich. Forty percent picked banks and investment companies, with another 20 percent identifying major corporations and 16 percent choosing wealthy individuals. Just 9 percent contend that the middle class has been the principal beneficiary, and 8 percent say that the poor have benefited most. African-Americans are more likely than whites to see middle- or lower-income families as the major beneficiaries. But in all demographic groups, the sense is widespread that over the past year most of the jam was placed on the top shelf, to paraphrase Texas populist Jim Hightower.

To some of those surveyed, the government's approach was a necessary evil. "When those policies came out, it was immediate help for the wealthy," said Maria Carvajal of Cliffside Park, N.J., a sales representative who was laid off last June. "But it was probably necessary to do [those] things. Otherwise, we'd be in a worse situation right now." Benjamin Keeney, a Newtown, Conn., real estate agent, agreed: "They had to be bailed out.... It's a draconian bargain. There wasn't any short, sweet answer." Many other respondents, though, are angry at what they see as an economic miscalculation and moral affront. "From what I've read and seen, it's just the big bosses that are benefiting," said Jane Leist of Lima, Ohio, who was laid off from her job at a nonprofit organization.

Yet, despite such complaints, the poll suggests that many Americans draw distinctions between the various strands of the recovery package that first President Bush and then Obama put into place. A plurality of those surveyed say that TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program to provide assistance to banks and other financial institutions, has damaged the economy, but the margin is relatively narrow: 43 percent say it has hurt, while 36 percent say it has helped. (The remainder say that the program has had no effect or aren't sure.) Obama's decision to provide financial aid to General Motors and Chrysler drew a similar response, with 45 percent saying that it has hurt the economy and 34 percent saying it has helped. (The balance tilted somewhat more toward the negative side when respondents were asked how those policies have affected their personal financial situation.)

Yet the verdict is more positive on the massive stimulus plan that Obama signed last winter. By 45 percent to 38 percent, a plurality of respondents say that it has helped the national economy. Asked how the package has affected their personal finances, those polled divide almost in thirds between those saying it has helped, hurt, or had no effect.

Looking forward, a slightly larger plurality say that the cap-and-trade program to control greenhouse-gas emissions that Obama is promoting would help the economy, while respondents split almost exactly in half on health care reform's potential economic impact. (On a separate question, 44 percent say they support the health care initiative; 46 percent oppose it.)

These divergent judgments about the pieces of the recovery package may help explain why the survey found the country so closely split on the cumulative impact of Obama's economic agenda. By 37 percent to 34 percent, a narrow plurality say that his agenda has increased, rather than decreased, opportunity for people like them to get ahead. (The remainder say that it has had no impact or don't know.) Conversely, in a partial sample, 46 percent say that Obama has "run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession," whereas 43 percent say that he has helped "avoid an even worse economic crisis." On both questions, a clear majority of nonwhite respondents endorse Obama's efforts, while substantially more whites view them negatively than positively. The racial chasm among respondents on Obama's actions ran throughout the poll.

On each question, the survey also found a slight deterioration in support for Obama since the September poll, albeit within the margin of error. Nevertheless, erosion in public support was consistent. Obama's inauguration ignited a flash of optimism about the country's direction: In the Heartland Monitor survey last April, 47 percent of those polled said that the country was moving in the right direction, a dramatic increase from 2008. In the latest poll, that number slumped to 34 percent, with 55 percent saying that the country is on the wrong track.

Obama's approval rating has likewise declined in the quarterly Heartland Monitor polls--from 61 percent in April to 56 percent in July, 52 percent in September, and just 47 percent in the latest survey. His disapproval rating has increased from 28 percent in April to 45 percent now. Those numbers are threatening for Democrats, because ever since the 1960s the president's party has suffered much larger losses in midterm elections when his approval rating has fallen below 50 percent.

Mixed Emotions

Although support for Obama remains strongest among those at the core of his 2008 electoral coalition, the erosion in his standing is widespread. Since April, his approval rating has slipped 9 percentage points among Democrats and Republicans alike, and about twice that among independents. Also since April, the president's standing among Hispanics, though still a strong 60 percent, has fallen by about the same rate as it has among whites.

His approval among white respondents is now down to 38 percent overall and just 35 percent among those without a college education--the group that has been consistently coolest to him. College-educated white men are nearly as dubious, with only 38 percent approving. College-educated white women, traditionally Democratic-leaning, display more support; but even among this group, Obama's approval has slipped to 46 percent, down from 64 percent in April. By contrast, African-Americans and people under 30 have hardly budged in their solid support.

But Obama certainly can't find the early numbers on his re-election prospects encouraging: Just 39 percent of Heartland Monitor poll respondents say they are inclined to support him for a second term. Fifty percent say they will probably or definitely vote for someone else.

Responses to a series of other questions in the poll suggest that although an ardent minority has solidified against Obama, many Americans are weighing disappointment over current conditions against continued hope in the president's ability to steer the nation toward better economic times.

That balancing act is seen most clearly when respondents assess the impact of Obama's policies on the country over the past year. Thirty-one percent say that the country is significantly worse off because of the policies he has pursued. Those critics greatly outnumbered the 13 percent who say the country is "significantly better off" because of the president's policies. But the largest group--52 percent--says that the country is "not significantly better off yet, but [is] beginning to move in the right direction because of the policies Obama has pursued."

Nearly half of those who believe that Obama has worsened the country's situation cite "government regulation and spending" as the cause, far more than any other reason; nearly half of those who believe he has already improved conditions say that he is implementing policies that will provide long-term benefits. Within the pivotal center group, about one-third say they believe Obama has set the country on the right course because his policies "will have bigger benefits down the road"; another third say he "is showing himself to be a strong leader" with the capacity to improve over time.

Asked to define the president's leadership style, respondents separated much as they did over his policies. Reflecting resistance on the right, 37 percent say he is pursuing "a liberal ideological agenda ... that will end up hurting America." Thirteen percent criticize Obama from the left, contending that he is "too cautious to deliver real change and too accommodating to right-wing conservatives." But a 44 percent plurality say that he is "pursuing a thoughtful, practical approach" to the country's problems.

A similar divide opened up on a more basic question assessing views about government's role in the economy. Just over one-third agreed with the Ronald Reagan-like sentiment that "government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem." Nearly three in 10 took the opposite view, that "government must play an active role in ... ensuring that the economy benefits people like me." The final one-third of respondents teetered between those two poles, saying they would "like to see government play an active role in the economy" but aren't sure they can trust leaders "to do this effectively."

Mixed emotions surfaced yet again when pollsters offered a series of choices to describe attitudes about Obama. Seventy-four percent of those polled say they like him personally. But a 49-percent-to-46-percent plurality dislike his policies. Completing the picture, 41 percent still prefer to have Obama rather than congressional Republicans taking the lead in addressing the nation's economic problems; 33 percent say the opposite. But Obama's edge is less than half what it was in September.

Taken together, these results show Obama facing energized, possibly implacable, opposition from slightly more than one-third of the nation. But the poll also finds the president maintaining a solid base among several of the groups central to his winning 2008 coalition, particularly racial minorities and young adults. For the remainder, the persuadable voters who could tip the 2010 and 2012 elections, hope and fear remain closely balanced as the Great Recession lingers over the nation like a biting arctic chill.

National Journal Researcher Cameron Joseph contributed to this report. The author can be reached at rbrownstein@nationaljournal.com.

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