Deep into the Great Depression, Americans cried out for help, elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in a 1932 landslide and marshaled in the era of big government. Facing a stagnant, inflation-torn economy in 1980, they rose up in a backlash against that big government by sweeping Ronald Reagan to victory.
Today, despite an ailing economy struggling to recover from the worst recession since the Roosevelt era, people show no signs of uniting behind any bold new approach. They split along many lines income, geography, age, ideology. Older people see government with a big role in easing economic pain. Younger people are less inclined to look to Washington. Conservatives think paring the federal debt is a top priority; liberals, less so.
McClatchy dispatched journalists to a dozen states and commissioned the national poll to plumb the mood and temper of the nation, as its people approach one of the most crucial elections in generations. At stake is a path toward two distinctly different Americas.
The yen for unity is evident: 86 percent said the economy is a top priority, with support cutting across all ideological and partisan lines. Eighty percent also named the job situation as a top priority. And three of every four people think its more important for government to seek compromise.
But heres the 2012 catch: 72 percent of Democrats thought the government should solve the economic problems, compared with 46 percent of Republicans.
The one thing that unites Americans from coast to coast this summer is anxiety about an economy that cannot gain its footing.
In California, self-employed real estate agent Jefferson McGee is still one of the casualties from the Great Recession. I was selling seven houses a month before the recession, said the 50-year-old from Sacramento. Now Im selling a home every seven months.
Catherine Chestnut, 59, of Joshua Tree, Calif., is on disability and supports her boyfriend of more than a decade. After losing a manager job, her partner, Harry, returned to school, got a business management degree a few years ago but hasnt found a job. They spend less, their frugality echoing through the neighborhood. Weve cut back on a lot of stuff, she said.
In South Carolina, retired teacher Cynthia Carter, 64, of Irmo, summed up her feeling flatly: This just isnt working out.
Americans rank the economy and jobs at the very top of their list of concerns this summer, according to the poll, which probed how Americans feel about the top issues facing the country and how they want to fix them. They divide, though, on whether they want the government to play an activist role ala FDR, or whether they want to cut back government ala Reagan as a way to stimulate spending by citizens and business.
The findings dont suggest a smooth path forward. While people view the upcoming November election as having potential to make a big difference, they also harbor a skepticism bred by years of political paralysis. Republicans see the 2009 economic stimulus as barely keeping the economy afloat and making big government even bigger. Democrats complain that the government isnt doing enough
By one measure, Americans are evenly split over whether they look to the federal government or business to fix the jobs crisis.
By another, theres skepticism about whether an activist government is the answer: 70 percent say cutting government spending is the best way to stoke the economy and create jobs, while 27 percent say increased spending is the answer. Even among Democrats, 47 percent support cutting federal spending to help the economy.