A question on higher education produces a similar split between those who want Washington to spend more on providing financial aid (47 percent) and those who want government to shift its focus toward limiting access to student aid for schools that raise tuition too quickly (44 percent). Three-fifths of both Democrats and minorities want to expand aid, while only about one-third of Republicans and two-fifths of whites agree.
On the impact of health care reform, Americans sort almost exactly into three camps, with about one-third each saying Obama’s plan will improve the system by increasing access and lowering costs, hurt the system by disrupting it, or not do enough to change it. Whites are more likely to say that reform will hurt rather than help the system, but nearly twice as many minorities are positive than negative about the change.
Likewise, the country is divided closely on whether families should continue to rely primarily on individual 401(k) plans to finance their retirement (52 percent) or whether the turbulence in financial markets since 2007 makes that approach too risky (44 percent). Two-thirds of Republicans side with the first answer; nearly three-fifths of Democrats with the second. Similar partisan breaks are evident on a question about whether the primary responsibility for financing infrastructure should continue to rest with government (54 percent) or shift to the private sector (43 percent).
Two other long-term choices generate greater consensus. By 61 percent to 34 percent, a solid majority of all respondents say the nation is more likely to enhance its international competitiveness by improving K-12 education than by making college education more accessible and affordable, with little difference among Democrats and Republicans. And a comparably robust 62 percent to 34 percent majority think the best approach to retirement security is to “continue the current system of Social Security and Medicare which offer guaranteed benefits to seniors but are consuming a growing share of the federal budget” rather than restructuring the programs “to rely more on the private sector, which would place less strain on the federal budget but provide seniors fewer guaranteed benefits.” Even nearly half of Republicans want to continue relying mostly on government for retirement benefits.
And after a campaign that focused an intense spotlight on the nation’s changing face, the survey found that considerably more Americans believe that the steady growth of the minority population is a positive trend. In the new survey, 53 percent of those surveyed say the changes “continue the American tradition of welcoming people of all backgrounds” while 42 percent say the “change is happening too quickly and causing fundamental changes to the [country’s] character and values.” In May 2011, the results were almost reversed, with respondents picking the negative option 50 percent to 42 percent. African-Americans, especially, expressed much more acceptance of the changes in the new survey than the old, but whites did as well.
Whites still split almost in half, however, on whether this change is beneficial (49 percent) or harmful (46 percent). And more than 55 percent of Romney voters and of all noncollege whites see these trends as harmful. That continues the pattern throughout the polls of whites expressing much more anxiety than nonwhites about many of the basic currents in American life. In the poll, whites also consistently display much more skepticism than nonwhites about using government to redirect those currents.
On the foundational question that the poll has asked since January 2010, the latest survey once again finds the country closely divided on government’s role in responding to the nation’s challenges. The largest group, but well below a majority, endorse the Ronald Reaganesque view that government is more the problem than the solution (37 percent); 31 percent embrace the Democratic perspective that government, by definition, “must play an active role” in regulating the marketplace and expanding opportunity. The remainder say they are open to public-sector activism in theory but dubious that government can meet its objectives.
Whites are nearly twice as likely as nonwhites to believe that government is more the problem than the solution. About 70 percent of Romney voters endorsed that perspective, compared with about 14 percent of Obama voters.
Across all of these fronts, the president and the 113th Congress that will convene in January face the formidable challenge of building a working majority for change from two separate but equal political coalitions that are now almost identical in size—but utterly divergent in their racial composition, policy priorities, and view of government’s role. Like the election itself, this survey shows that Obama, behind the new Democratic coalition of minorities, young people, and upscale white women, undertakes that work with a slightly larger base of support than the GOP. But it also underscores how much of the white electorate remains estranged from his vision. The prerequisite for addressing the challenges identified in this latest Heartland Monitor Poll may be renewing a sense of common purpose in an America where it remains elusive, even after the booming guns of an acrimonious campaign have been silenced.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed
This article appears in the Dec. 8, 2012, edition of National Journal as Moving Ahead.