On each of these questions, whites are far more pessimistic than minorities, with the only exception that neither group is confident about narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Two-thirds of minorities, for instance, compared with just over two-fifths of whites, say they expect the economy to improve; the gap is even wider in projections about personal financial circumstances. Slightly more than one-third of minorities expect government to spend more on programs that will benefit people like them; only about one-fifth of whites agree.
As negotiations on the deficit and other issues accelerate, most Americans, consistent with past surveys, say they want both sides to compromise. Just under three-fifths of Obama voters say he should “compromise with Republicans to get more done, even if it means accepting some policies” that the respondents don’t support. Fifty-four percent of Romney voters respond the same way about congressional Republicans compromising with Obama. That continues a consistent pattern in surveys of Republican partisans showing somewhat less enthusiasm about compromise than Democrats. (“I want there to be a divide,” says Chandra, the Tennessee homemaker. “I don’t want people to give up.”)
Fewer respondents think the two sides will, in fact, compromise. Just 43 percent said they expect the president and Congress to “work together more than they did in the previous four years.” Forty-five percent said they thought relations will be about the same, and 10 percent said they think the two sides will cooperate even less, which is a little like forecasting a drought in a desert. Democrats and minorities are much more optimistic about progress than Republicans and whites, with independents falling in between.
Obama, the poll suggests, moves into these discussions in a slightly strengthened political position. In the survey, he experiences a swell, not a surge, in support. His approval rating in the poll rose to 54 percent, up from 49 percent in the preelection September survey and his strongest showing since the July 2009 Heartland Monitor. But his approval rating still sits at just 43 percent among whites and 48 percent among independents.
Another key measure also shows perceptible, but modest, tailwinds for the president. The share of Americans who say the country is moving on the right track bumped up from 35 percent in September to 41 percent now, the best number since April 2009. But Democrats primarily fueled that advance: Only about one in three independents (and whites) and just one in 11 Republicans agree that the country is moving in the right direction.
Meanwhile, just 44 percent of adults (including a microscopic 9 percent of Romney voters) expect the economy to improve over the next year. The share who think their personal situation will improve fell from 45 percent in September to 39 percent now, with Republicans primarily driving the decline.
Obama reaps only small gains, well within the margin of error, on two questions about the impact of his economic policies. Respondents still divide almost exactly in half on whether his agenda is laying the foundation for recovery or produces record deficits while failing to end the recession; and whether his approach will increase or decrease opportunity for people like them. In each case, minorities are substantially more likely than whites to see positive effects from Obama’s agenda; in the 11 Heartland Monitor polls since January 2010, not more than 28 percent of whites have ever said they believe Obama’s agenda would increase opportunities for people like them. (On this front, college and noncollege whites substantially agree.)
Strategically, the good news for Obama is that congressional Republicans engender even less confidence. Only about one in five overall approve of Congress’s performance. And by a solid 48 percent to 32 percent, those surveyed say they trust Obama more than congressional Republicans to develop solutions to the country’s economic problems. That’s Obama’s widest advantage on that question in the 10 times the Heartland Monitor has asked it since September 2009—and it may help explain the hard line the president is taking in the initial collisions with congressional Republicans over the impending fiscal cliff.
SPLIT DOWN THE MIDDLE
While taxes and spending represent Washington’s most immediate challenge, the poll also tracked broader attitudes about how the nation should deal with many of the financial challenges that people identified. These questions sought to measure preferences not about specific policies but about the direction Washington should take in responding to worries such as the cost and quality of education, retirement security, and health care. On many of these policy choices, the nation, ominously, remains closely divided, with deep crevices along the overlapping lines of race and partisanship.
Americans divide almost in half, for instance, over whether Washington should continue to fund programs to promote homeownership at its current level (49 percent) or scale them back because they cost too much (47 percent). Two-thirds of Democrats picked the first option; more than three-fifths of Republicans chose the second. Likewise, exactly half of whites want to scale back, while three-fifths of minorities want to maintain, Washington’s efforts to promote homeownership.