Politics

Poll Reflects Stark Political Divides and the Long Path Ahead for Washington

The latest Heartland Monitor Poll finds that forging common purpose in a divided nation remains challenging even after the contentious election campaign.

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, second from right, accompanied by, from left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., gestures as he speaks with reporters outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, following their meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the economy and the deficit. 
AP
Ronald Brownstein
Dec. 7, 2012, 7:04 a.m.

After a cam­paign sea­son of un­pre­ced­en­ted ex­pense and dur­a­tion, tam­ing the fed­er­al de­fi­cit and avoid­ing the fisc­al cliff top the pub­lic’s To Do list for Pres­id­ent Obama and Con­gress, the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll has found.

But in con­trast to Wash­ing­ton’s nearly ex­clus­ive fo­cus on the budget­ary stan­doff, Amer­ic­ans ex­press al­most equal worry about an ar­ray of oth­er eco­nom­ic chal­lenges, in­clud­ing the avail­ab­il­ity of jobs, the qual­ity of edu­ca­tion, and the cost of col­lege and health care. And even as Amer­ic­ans urge poli­cy­makers to reach a budget deal, the poll found that most rank pro­gress on oth­er fronts, such as im­prov­ing edu­ca­tion and pro­mot­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing, above sta­bil­iz­ing the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment’s fin­ances as a key to long-term eco­nom­ic re­new­al.

In the elec­tion’s af­ter­math, the sur­vey finds a mod­est but meas­ur­able up­tick in sup­port for Obama and in op­tim­ism about the na­tion’s dir­ec­tion. And most Amer­ic­ans say they want the pres­id­ent and con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to com­prom­ise “to get more done,” even if that means ac­cept­ing some policies that the re­spond­ents don’t ne­ces­sar­ily agree with.

Yet the poll shows that anxi­ety about the eco­nomy’s tra­ject­ory, and skep­ti­cism that the two sides will in fact reach agree­ment, re­main en­trenched. On many is­sues, so do the same par­tis­an, ideo­lo­gic­al, and ra­cial di­vides that char­ac­ter­ized last month’s elec­tion. When it comes to a num­ber of the key choices, voters who sup­por­ted Obama and those who backed Re­pub­lic­an Mitt Rom­ney ex­press al­most dia­met­ric­al pri­or­it­ies. For all the con­cern about the de­fi­cit, few solu­tions oth­er than rais­ing taxes on the rich gen­er­ate much en­thu­si­asm in the sur­vey. And whites, who gave Rom­ney near-re­cord sup­port for a White House chal­lenger, dis­play throughout the poll a strik­ingly pess­im­ist­ic streak about the na­tion’s dir­ec­tion and Obama’s likely ef­fect on it.

Taken to­geth­er, these res­ults sug­gest that the elec­tion hasn’t re­motely cleared away all of the obstacles that made for a rocky two years between Obama and Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill. But it may have provided a nar­row path­way to­ward pro­gress for both sides. Above all, the sur­vey shows how great a chal­lenge Wash­ing­ton faces in for­ging re­sponses to our most press­ing prob­lems that can com­mand, much less sus­tain, sup­port from more than a nar­row and fleet­ing ma­jor­ity of the Amer­ic­an people.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

The latest Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­vey, su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice, is the 15th in a series ex­plor­ing how Amer­ic­ans are nav­ig­at­ing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll ex­plores the pub­lic’s eco­nom­ic pri­or­it­ies and con­cerns in the postelec­tion peri­od — as well as at­ti­tudes about com­pet­ing ap­proaches for re­spond­ing to those prob­lems. The poll sur­veyed 1,000 adults from Nov. 25-Dec. 1 on land­line and cell phones and has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points.

Like the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion it­self, the res­ults show the coun­try closely, but sharply, split on a wide as­sort­ment of as­sess­ments and choices.

One telling series of ques­tions asked re­spond­ents to rank on a scale from zero to 10 what they con­sider the highest pri­or­it­ies for “elec­ted of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton” to ad­dress; and, sep­ar­ately, to list the long-term steps that “would do the most to im­prove the coun­try over “¦ the next 10 to 20 years.” Those ques­tions pro­duced subtle and re­veal­ing dif­fer­ences, not only with­in each list but also between the two.

On the im­me­di­ate as­sign­ment list for Wash­ing­ton, deal­ing with the budget de­fi­cit and na­tion­al debt fin­ished first, draw­ing an av­er­age score of 8.4 on that zero-to-10 scale of im­port­ance. But five oth­er is­sues clustered close be­hind it: “the status of So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care” (at an av­er­age of 8.2); the avail­ab­il­ity of good-pay­ing jobs (8.1); the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, in­clud­ing its cost (at 8.0); the cost of health care and the tax sys­tem (both at 7.9).

These pri­or­it­ies di­verge sub­stan­tially across ra­cial and par­tis­an lines. For whites, deal­ing with the de­fi­cit ranks as the clear first pri­or­ity, fol­lowed by So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care, and then the avail­ab­il­ity of good jobs. For minor­it­ies, the top pri­or­ity is the edu­ca­tion sys­tem (which ranked only sixth among whites), fol­lowed by the en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams, jobs, and the cost of health care.

Sim­il­arly, poll re­spond­ents who said they voted for Rom­ney identi­fy re­du­cing the de­fi­cit, by far, as their highest pri­or­ity, fol­lowed by na­tion­al de­fense and the war on ter­ror­ism. Among Obama voters, debt ranked fifth and ter­ror­ism was 12th. Their top pri­or­it­ies are edu­ca­tion, jobs, health care costs, and the en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

The latest Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­vey, su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice, is the 15th in a series ex­plor­ing how Amer­ic­ans are nav­ig­at­ing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll ex­plores the pub­lic’s eco­nom­ic pri­or­it­ies and con­cerns in the postelec­tion peri­od — as well as at­ti­tudes about com­pet­ing ap­proaches for re­spond­ing to those prob­lems. The poll sur­veyed 1,000 adults from Nov. 25-Dec. 1 on land­line and cell phones and has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points.

Like the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion it­self, the res­ults show the coun­try closely, but sharply, split on a wide as­sort­ment of as­sess­ments and choices.

One telling series of ques­tions asked re­spond­ents to rank on a scale from zero to 10 what they con­sider the highest pri­or­it­ies for “elec­ted of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton” to ad­dress; and, sep­ar­ately, to list the long-term steps that “would do the most to im­prove the coun­try over “¦ the next 10 to 20 years.” Those ques­tions pro­duced subtle and re­veal­ing dif­fer­ences, not only with­in each list but also between the two.

On the im­me­di­ate as­sign­ment list for Wash­ing­ton, deal­ing with the budget de­fi­cit and na­tion­al debt fin­ished first, draw­ing an av­er­age score of 8.4 on that zero-to-10 scale of im­port­ance. But five oth­er is­sues clustered close be­hind it: “the status of So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care” (at an av­er­age of 8.2); the avail­ab­il­ity of good-pay­ing jobs (8.1); the edu­ca­tion sys­tem, in­clud­ing its cost (at 8.0); the cost of health care and the tax sys­tem (both at 7.9).

These pri­or­it­ies di­verge sub­stan­tially across ra­cial and par­tis­an lines. For whites, deal­ing with the de­fi­cit ranks as the clear first pri­or­ity, fol­lowed by So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care, and then the avail­ab­il­ity of good jobs. For minor­it­ies, the top pri­or­ity is the edu­ca­tion sys­tem (which ranked only sixth among whites), fol­lowed by the en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams, jobs, and the cost of health care.

Sim­il­arly, poll re­spond­ents who said they voted for Rom­ney identi­fy re­du­cing the de­fi­cit, by far, as their highest pri­or­ity, fol­lowed by na­tion­al de­fense and the war on ter­ror­ism. Among Obama voters, debt ranked fifth and ter­ror­ism was 12th. Their top pri­or­it­ies are edu­ca­tion, jobs, health care costs, and the en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams.

The coun­try di­vides much more closely on three oth­er op­tions for con­trolling the de­fi­cit: re­du­cing de­fense spend­ing (with 54 per­cent identi­fy­ing it as an ef­fect­ive ap­proach), rais­ing taxes on all Amer­ic­ans (53 per­cent), and re­du­cing spend­ing on pro­grams that sup­port the poor such as wel­fare and Medi­caid (51 per­cent).

Al­most all budget ex­perts be­lieve that Wash­ing­ton can’t ul­ti­mately bal­ance its books without con­trolling spend­ing on pro­grams that be­ne­fit the eld­erly, such as So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care. But only about one-third of those polled agree. Re­du­cing such spend­ing was by far the least pop­u­lar op­tion over­all, and it offered a rare point of bi­par­tis­an con­ver­gence. Al­though Rom­ney voters are al­most twice as likely as Obama sup­port­ers to back cut­ting pro­grams that be­ne­fit the poor, only one-third of each man’s voters want to point the knife to­ward the gi­ant en­ti­tle­ments for the eld­erly.

WE SHALL OVER­COME

As from the be­gin­ning, the latest Heart­land Mon­it­or finds that the strains of the Great Re­ces­sion and its gruel­ing af­ter­math have not cracked the pub­lic’s bed­rock op­tim­ism that Amer­ica can meet the com­plex polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic chal­lenges con­front­ing it. Ex­actly two-thirds of those polled say they be­lieve the na­tion even­tu­ally “will over­come these chal­lenges “¦ just like we’ve done with oth­er ma­jor chal­lenges throughout our his­tory.” Slightly un­der one-third be­lieve that “Amer­ic­ans are fa­cing a unique set of chal­lenges that are so ser­i­ous that we might not be able to over­come them.” The sense of mas­tery is widely shared across ra­cial, class, and gen­er­a­tion­al lines (al­though a 49 per­cent plur­al­ity of Rom­ney voters, prob­ably re­flect­ing dis­ap­point­ment over Obama’s vic­tory, take the pess­im­ist­ic view). “We’ve had hard times in our his­tory that have been very chal­len­ging — far more chal­len­ging than what we just went through,” said Karten, the New Jer­sey home­maker.

Yet also like earli­er sur­veys, this poll finds that op­tim­ism tempered by the fear that the hard times of re­cent years rep­res­ent a “new nor­mal” of di­min­ished op­por­tun­ity, par­tic­u­larly for young people, and widen­ing in­sec­ur­ity. “I don’t think that any­thing will be com­fy cozy again, where every­one could buy a house and take a va­ca­tion — that’s a real­ity for a small share of people,” says Se­gel, the re­tired tile-set­ter.

WE SHALL OVERCOME

As from the be­gin­ning, the latest Heart­land Mon­it­or finds that the strains of the Great Re­ces­sion and its gruel­ing af­ter­math have not cracked the pub­lic’s bed­rock op­tim­ism that Amer­ica can meet the com­plex polit­ic­al and eco­nom­ic chal­lenges con­front­ing it. Ex­actly two-thirds of those polled say they be­lieve the na­tion even­tu­ally “will over­come these chal­lenges “¦ just like we’ve done with oth­er ma­jor chal­lenges throughout our his­tory.” Slightly un­der one-third be­lieve that “Amer­ic­ans are fa­cing a unique set of chal­lenges that are so ser­i­ous that we might not be able to over­come them.” The sense of mas­tery is widely shared across ra­cial, class, and gen­er­a­tion­al lines (al­though a 49 per­cent plur­al­ity of Rom­ney voters, prob­ably re­flect­ing dis­ap­point­ment over Obama’s vic­tory, take the pess­im­ist­ic view). “We’ve had hard times in our his­tory that have been very chal­len­ging — far more chal­len­ging than what we just went through,” said Karten, the New Jer­sey home­maker.

Yet also like earli­er sur­veys, this poll finds that op­tim­ism tempered by the fear that the hard times of re­cent years rep­res­ent a “new nor­mal” of di­min­ished op­por­tun­ity, par­tic­u­larly for young people, and widen­ing in­sec­ur­ity. “I don’t think that any­thing will be com­fy cozy again, where every­one could buy a house and take a va­ca­tion — that’s a real­ity for a small share of people,” says Se­gel, the re­tired tile-set­ter.

In­ter­views with poll re­spond­ents un­der­scored the dis­tance between these per­spect­ives. “We need to in­vest in our fu­ture even if it costs us a buck now — if it means main­tain­ing de­fi­cits for a while,” says Thomas Se­gel, a re­tired tile-set­ter from Gaines­ville, Mo., in a com­ment typ­ic­al of Obama’s sup­port­ers.

By con­trast, Rom­ney voters ex­pressed pas­sion­ate con­cern about the dir­ec­tion of fed­er­al spend­ing. And per­haps re­flect­ing the de­bate over gov­ern­ment “de­pend­ency” that swirled around Rom­ney’s “47 per­cent” com­ment, many of his sup­port­ers ex­pressed vis­cer­al dis­taste for trans­fer pro­grams that be­ne­fit the poor. “We need to cut some people off and give them a work pro­gram or something,” in­sisted Chandra, a home­maker in Hunt­ing­don, Tenn., who did not provide her last name. “Put them to work some­how. But they shouldn’t be col­lect­ing a check for noth­ing.” Judy King, a re­tired jail ad­min­is­trat­or in Jasper, Texas, was equally vehe­ment. “The de­fi­cit is get­ting worse and worse, and we’re go­ing to fold com­pletely un­der if they don’t fix it,” she wor­ries. “Quit spend­ing. Cut back. There’s no reas­on for pay­ing for people who are too lazy to take a job.”

Yet for all the at­ten­tion and pas­sion fo­cused on the fed­er­al de­fi­cit, con­trolling it ranked re­l­at­ively low among the pub­lic’s long-term pri­or­it­ies. When asked which of six ac­tions would most “im­prove the coun­try over the long term,” just 12 per­cent picked “elim­in­at­ing the fed­er­al budget de­fi­cit through tax in­creases and spend­ing cuts.” Only “in­creas­ing U.S. en­ergy se­cur­ity” ranked lower.

The top pri­or­ity for long-term re­new­al, at 30 per­cent, was “mak­ing edu­ca­tion more af­ford­able, ac­cess­ible, and rel­ev­ant to today’s job mar­ket.” Pro­mot­ing Amer­ic­an man­u­fac­tur­ing (17 per­cent), provid­ing in­cent­ives to help people start their own busi­ness (15 per­cent), and re­du­cing the trade de­fi­cit (14 per­cent) all fin­ished ahead of con­trolling the de­fi­cit.

These pri­or­it­ies again vary some­what across ra­cial lines, with im­prov­ing edu­ca­tion a much more de­cis­ive top fin­ish­er for minor­it­ies than for whites. But the real dif­fer­ences are across party lines. Over two-fifths of Obama voters picked im­prov­ing edu­ca­tion as the key to long-term re­new­al, more than double the share that chose any oth­er op­tion. But edu­ca­tion placed last among Rom­ney voters, with only about one in eight identi­fy­ing it. Re­du­cing the de­fi­cit and pro­mot­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing topped the list of Rom­ney-voter pri­or­it­ies.

This di­vide power­fully re­sur­faced on an­oth­er ques­tion that asked re­spond­ents to choose among dif­fer­ent strategies for long-term eco­nom­ic re­viv­al. A 43 per­cent plur­al­ity said they see the greatest chance for suc­cess in a Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing strategy centered on “in­vest­ments in edu­ca­tion, train­ing, in­fra­struc­ture, and re­search, even if it means con­tin­ued de­fi­cits and tax in­creases.” Twenty-nine per­cent said they be­lieve the eco­nomy is most likely to thrive be­hind a tra­di­tion­ally Re­pub­lic­an ap­proach of “tax cuts for busi­nesses and in­di­vidu­als, even if it means con­tin­ued de­fi­cits and cuts to pub­lic ser­vices.” Just 22 per­cent said they would bet on “re­du­cing the fed­er­al de­fi­cit, even if it means both tax in­creases and cuts to pub­lic ser­vices.”

Once again, Obama and Rom­ney sup­port­ers lined up in con­trast­ing camps. Fully 62 per­cent of Obama sup­port­ers say an in­vest­ment strategy of­fers the best pro­spect for pro­gress. Kend­al Karten, a home­maker in Old Bridge, N.J., is typ­ic­al. “I am a firm be­liev­er in in­vest­ing in ourselves,” she says. “If we in­vest as a whole, as a people, the di­vidends are great. If you have a bet­ter-edu­cated pop­u­la­tion, they’ll have bet­ter ideas — there will be more en­tre­pren­eurs. The role of the gov­ern­ment is not ne­ces­sar­ily to have no de­fi­cit; it’s to stim­u­late the eco­nomy.” Only about one in six Obama voters picked either tax cuts or de­fi­cit re­duc­tion as the most prom­ising strategy.

By con­trast, nearly a com­bined three-fourths of Rom­ney back­ers prefer cut­ting taxes (42 per­cent) or re­du­cing the de­fi­cit (30 per­cent). Only about one in five would bet on pub­lic in­vest­ment. “Even as an in­di­vidu­al per­son, you can’t over­spend, [but] “¦ gov­ern­ment is way out of con­trol,” says Con­nie Weber, a spe­cial-edu­ca­tion teach­er in West Vir­gin­ia. “It’s in pro­grams the gov­ern­ment should have nev­er got­ten in­volved in. Hous­ing and bail­ing out com­pan­ies.”

When the poll asked re­spond­ents to dir­ectly as­sess the com­pet­ing strategies for re­du­cing the de­fi­cit, the res­ults crys­tal­lized both the di­ver­gence and am­bi­val­ence that so com­plic­ate the fisc­al de­bate. Fully 76 per­cent of those sur­veyed chose in­creas­ing taxes on fam­il­ies earn­ing at least $250,000 an­nu­ally as an ef­fect­ive strategy for re­du­cing the de­fi­cit, more than picked any oth­er op­tion. But the in­im­ic­al ap­proach of “re­du­cing taxes and reg­u­la­tions to spur eco­nom­ic growth” ranked second at 73 per­cent.

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.

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 ap­peared in the Sat­urday, Decem­ber 8, 2012 edi­tion of Na­tion­al Journ­al.

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.

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 ap­peared in the Sat­urday, Decem­ber 8, 2012 edi­tion of Na­tion­al Journ­al.

The bal­ance tilts fur­ther to­ward pess­im­ism on an­oth­er pri­or­ity: cre­at­ing a busi­ness cli­mate that pro­motes in­nov­a­tion and en­tre­pren­eur­ship. The pub­lic is, by far, most du­bi­ous that Wash­ing­ton will con­trol the fed­er­al de­fi­cit, with a 51 per­cent ma­jor­ity pick­ing the two most pess­im­ist­ic op­tions. That re­sponse is driv­en partly by over­whelm­ing skep­ti­cism among Re­pub­lic­ans, but al­most three-fifths of in­de­pend­ents also ex­pect little pro­gress on blot­ting the red ink.

An­oth­er ques­tion meas­ur­ing ex­pect­a­tions about broad­er trends through Obama’s second term pro­duced a sim­il­arly ar­id fore­cast. Only 51 per­cent of those sur­veyed say they ex­pect the eco­nomy to im­prove over the next four years. Even smal­ler per­cent­ages ex­pect im­prove­ment in their per­son­al fin­an­cial situ­ation (39 per­cent); the eco­nom­ic well-be­ing of middle-class Amer­ic­ans (36 per­cent); nar­row­ing the in­come gap between rich and every­one else (36 per­cent); and lessen­ing the fed­er­al de­fi­cit (34 per­cent.) More re­spond­ents ex­pect taxes to in­crease (62 per­cent) and gov­ern­ment spend­ing to rise (51 per­cent). Still, only one-fourth look for gov­ern­ment spend­ing to in­crease on pro­grams that would be­ne­fit people like them.

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.)

To Ar­ron Neal, a young com­mu­nic­a­tions con­sult­ant in Los Angeles, life mile­stones that an earli­er gen­er­a­tion con­sidered a birth­right seem al­most bey­ond reach for her and her hus­band. “We’d love to be able to buy a home, but it just seems like such an un­at­tain­able goal,” she says. Weber, the spe­cial-edu­ca­tion teach­er, says she and her hus­band (also a teach­er) ex­pect to be pay­ing off their stu­dent loans “un­til we die.” Al­though they are both em­ployed, she says, “we might not even be in the middle class. We’re prob­ably in the lower classes”¦. I don’t think the middle class will get much bet­ter be­cause of the cost of liv­ing. Wages might go up, but they’re not go­ing up as fast as the cost of liv­ing. Job op­por­tun­it­ies — I don’t see that in­creas­ing.”

This sense of ex­pos­ure to a di­verse set of eco­nom­ic risks per­meates the re­sponses to an­oth­er ques­tion that asked re­spond­ents to rank a series of per­son­al con­cerns on the zero-to-10 scale. Top­ping the list are wor­ries about the avail­ab­il­ity of So­cial Se­cur­ity (8.1) and be­ing able to re­tire com­fort­ably (8.0). Four oth­er con­cerns cluster close be­hind at 7.5 or above: the cost of health care, job se­cur­ity, the price of en­ergy, and be­ing able to af­ford edu­ca­tion for your­self or your chil­dren “that will lead to a good job.” At least 70 per­cent of those re­spond­ing de­scribe them­selves as ex­tremely con­cerned about each of those chal­lenges.

These re­sponses con­verge more across ra­cial and party lines than the an­swers about the coun­try’s top near- and long-term pri­or­it­ies, with one ex­cep­tion. Minor­it­ies and Demo­crats place a much high­er em­phas­is than whites and Re­pub­lic­ans do on the cost and qual­ity of edu­ca­tion. Aman­da, a young His­pan­ic moth­er in Lees­burg, Fla., who de­clined to give her last name, is strug­gling to pay off loans she took out to ob­tain a health care cre­den­tial. “You’re not go­ing to get any­where without edu­ca­tion,” she says, “but with them cut­ting budgets, it just makes things worse when you go to col­lege. I know how hard it is when you are get­ting phone calls from the stu­dent-debt com­pan­ies grilling you about when you are go­ing to re­pay.”

DOUBTS ABOUT WASH­ING­TON

In the sur­vey, Amer­ic­ans ex­press mod­est op­tim­ism that Wash­ing­ton will make pro­gress over the next four years on this for­mid­able ar­ray of chal­lenges. Asked how ef­fect­ively the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will deal with half a dozen key prob­lems, only about one-third say they ex­pect poli­cy­makers to be “not very” or “not at all” ef­fect­ive in sta­bil­iz­ing So­cial Se­cur­ity and Medi­care, cre­at­ing jobs, im­prov­ing the pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem, and grow­ing the eco­nomy. But less than one-fourth say they ex­pect Wash­ing­ton to be “very ef­fect­ive” in grap­pling with each of those chal­lenges. In every case, the largest group, around two-fifths of re­spond­ents, of­fer the luke­warm ex­pect­a­tion that the gov­ern­ment will be “some­what ef­fect­ive” in gen­er­at­ing pro­gress.

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