Neither party has a stable ideological majority for its vision of Washington’s role in American life. On a bedrock question (which has been asked five times since January 2010) about the federal government’s economic role, 33 percent to 40 percent of adults have expressed support for the Reaganesque conviction that “in the current economic environment, government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem.” Another 27 percent to 32 percent consistently have clustered around the opposite ideological pole, insisting that “the government must take an active role” in policing the market and expanding opportunity. The final approximately one-third of adults remain ambivalent, declaring that they are open to government activism in theory but in practice are skeptical that Washington can deliver what it promises. Likewise, when asked to choose between a conservative-leaning agenda that proposes to create opportunity by cutting taxes, spending, and regulation, and a liberal-leaning approach that emphasizes investment in education, training, infrastructure, and scientific research, the country has repeatedly divided nearly in half. Completing the picture, in the November-December 2010 poll, nearly three-fifths said they doubt that either party’s agenda can solve the nation’s problems. These findings underscore why Republicans and Democrats could both struggle to achieve a lasting advantage in an electoral competition that increasingly revolves around their widening philosophical dispute over Washington’s influence on American life: With the country so closely divided, elections often turn on the shifts among results-driven voters who don’t view their choices in those rigidly ideological terms.
Across these questions, the country is sharply polarized not only along partisan but also racial lines. On an array of measures, whites (especially, but not exclusively, older whites and those without college educations) express pervasive skepticism about government in general and Obama in particular. Since January 2010, the president’s approval rating among whites has exceeded 40 percent only in that May 2011 poll; during that period, even with slippage at times among Hispanics, his rating among nonwhites has not dipped below 68 percent. Approximately four-fifths (or more) of nonwhites say that Obama’s agenda has already produced benefits or set the country on the right course; in each of the past two surveys, about half of whites have said that the country is already worse off because of his approach. Looking forward, only one-fifth of whites (compared with nearly half of nonwhites) say they will be better off if Obama is reelected. Whites are also far more likely than nonwhites to endorse the view that government is more the problem than the solution. College-educated white women, who gave Obama a majority of their votes in 2008, remain more open to him (and government activism generally) than other whites, but even they are showing disillusionment, particularly with his economic performance.
Among whites, attitudes about racial change are now intertwined with attitudes about Obama, the role of government, and optimism about the future. In the May 2011 survey, about three-fifths of Asians and Hispanics, but only 45 percent of African-Americans and 39 percent of whites, expressed positive feelings about the propulsive demographic change that has swelled the minority share of the population past 36 percent. Both African-Americans supportive and dubious of the change displayed overwhelming support for Obama and his agenda. However, a wide chasm separated the 39 percent of whites who are positive on the change from the 53 percent who view it negatively. Whites uneasy about the development are more likely to say they have less opportunity than their parents; more likely to say their kids will have less opportunity than they do; more disappointed in Obama’s performance; and more likely to describe government as the problem. Frequently the differences between the two groups were enormous. For instance, more than three-fifths of uneasy whites disapproved of Obama’s job performance, while nearly three-fifths of the receptive whites approved. This doesn’t mean that racial resentment is primarily, or even largely, driving opposition to Obama. But it does show that attitudes about racial change have intertwined with the broader set of beliefs that demarcate the two parties’ coalitions. As Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg has observed, the Democratic coalition increasingly reflects diverse America and the portions of white America that are comfortable with diversity. The GOP coalition revolves around the portions of white America (particularly older and noncollege whites) least comfortable with the ongoing transformation.
Despite deep pessimism about the country’s direction, the latest poll offers some signs of optimism about better days ahead. In the December 2011 poll, a resounding 70 percent said that the country was on the wrong track. That’s the highest level of discontent measured in any Heartland Monitor and an ominous sign for Obama, because historically a lopsided majority of voters who say the country is on the wrong track vote against an incumbent. But the survey offers the president a hint of spring: 56 percent of those surveyed, up from 50 percent in October, said they expect the economy to improve over the next year.