The search for solutions begins with the debate over governments role. The momentum Roosevelt or Reagan could harness appears not only elusive, but a relic of a distant time.
Construction worker Brett Duval, for example, thinks its critical to get government out of the way to get the economy back on track.
The only thing our government needs to do is to defend America and fight wars. Thats it, said the 28-year-old father of three from Orlando, Fla.
They are spending my money, he argued. If I got to keep more of my money, I would get to spend more money on other things to help the economy. I would upgrade my appliances, maybe put in some new hardwood floors in my house.
Betty Herriott, 80, of Ventura, Calif., is relying on her pension to support her unemployed 58-year-old daughter, who just moved in. The two are struggling to pay for groceries and utilities.
I blame the government for spending beyond its means, said Herriott. Her one quick solution: Pare government regulation, which many say is strangling the economy. Who doesnt go to the beauty salon or a dry cleaner? Herriott asked. Theyre overtaxed and overregulated, she said. Private business would be best at creating jobs, if the government stayed out.
In Poplar Bluff, Mo., community college teacher William T. White, 56, wants the government to do more, not less.
The government didnt go far enough last time, he said of the $831 billion stimulus package of spending and tax cuts enacted in 2009. I think you have to spend money to get out of these things, and the government has more money than we do.
In nearby Columbia, Mo., retired teacher Mildred A. Cooke, 82, wants another jobs program along the lines of FDRs Works Progress Administration.
Create a jobs program even if we have to spend some government money. There are so many things that need to be done in our country, she said. You go back to the WPA so that you have to get up and go out and do something for the good of the country. Handing out money is not the way to do it.
This back and forth, talking past one another, two sides that keep failing to meet, characterizes much of the American mood today. Governments the problem, governments the solution. Spend more, spend less. Tax the wealthy more, dont tax the wealthy more. These polarized opinions have been chiseled into the American psyche like rarely before, reinforced by like-minded strangers on chat sites or commentators readily available on the Internet and cable television.
And they feed the politics in Washington, sending resolute representatives to Congress, where they lurch from confrontation to confrontation, unable to agree on a budget or taxes, threatening shutdowns or credit defaults.
The McClatchy-Marist findings suggest lawmakers will have a tortuous time again later this year confronting mammoth economic challenges. Bush-era tax cuts expire Dec. 31, and automatic spending cuts mandated under the 2011 budget law take effect in 2013 unless Congress decides otherwise.
Where to draw the line? Theres no consensus, and no indication that one is about to form. The era of consensus government appears, if not dead, at least dying.
Nearly three out of four Americans want their representatives to compromise to find solutions to these economic challenges, according to the McClatchy-Marist poll.