To many, president is no big deal

In era of peace and prosperity, the president seems to matter less than Greenspan or Gates.

When you think about it, did it really matter to your life that George Bush beat Michael Dukakis for the presidency in 1988? Or that Bill Clinton ousted Mr. Bush from the White House four years later, then rolled over Bob Dole four years after that?

Perhaps a family member's military experience during the Gulf War or in Kosovo would have been different. Maybe another mix of justices on the United States Supreme Court would have moved a life-changing issue - say, abortion - in a different direction.

But for an increasing number of Americans, who sits in the Oval Office is not a big deal.

The reasons for this are varied. America won the cold war, and no major international crises loom demanding a strong commander in chief.

The economy - tooling along at a healthy clip for most workers and investors - has become truly global. If any single individual is important here it may be Alan Greenspan, whose reign as Federal Reserve Board chairman has spanned three presidencies.

And for a period that most people found intolerably long, Washington partisans (and the press) were mesmerized by a White House sex scandal that only added to a sense of public disengagement with presidential politics.

As the demographic balance shifts from "the greatest generation" that proved itself during World War II to baby boomers to Gen X-ers weaned on television and the Internet, this picture of a diminishing presidency sharpens.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center bears this out. "One in five [people interviewed] flatly agreed with the statement that who is elected is not as important as it was in the 1970s and '80s," says director Andrew Kohut. "Perhaps more tellingly, our trend measure found 30 percent saying it does not make much difference who is elected, and that's up from 18 percent who said that in 1992 and 1976."

In contrast to an earlier era when people put their lives on the line for civil rights, protested the Vietnam War, and grew cynical over Watergate - all issues tied directly and dramatically to who was president at the time - America today "is a hotbed of social rest," cracks Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Or as Mr. Kohut told a recent gathering at the Brookings Institution, "This younger generation, these 18 to 30s, are not merely a generation that was raised in a time of peace and prosperity, they are the children of a generation that were raised in a time of relative peace and prosperity."

In other words, in an age when SUVs are powered by gasoline prices that remain historically low (notwithstanding the current spike), when nobody worries about a military draft, and when Wall Street-driven retirement accounts seem to grow fat on their own, the presidency seems less and less important.

Part of this has to do with the general decline in voter turnout - just 49 percent of those eligible voted in 1996. But there's also a public perception - particularly in the wake of scandal and partisan gridlock - that "the country works, but Washington doesn't," as Mr. Mann puts it.

This is especially true for younger Americans, fewer and fewer of whom study civics in school or pay much attention to the news. "It is amazing the extent to which intelligent young people know absolutely nothing about choices - like who is running, and what party they are," Mann laments.

And yet there are positive signs regarding young people's attitudes toward public service, even though they generally seem to know and care less about who's running the country.

In a survey of Americans age 18 to 30, pollster Peter Hart found that "young people's strong preference for leadership that emphasizes the collective participation of many individuals over the strong leadership of just a few is evident in an array of different measures."

The study was commissioned by Public Allies, a Washington-based organization that provides leadership training for young people. One question asked: "Which one or two organizations can best solve our problems?" Nearly three-quarters of respondents picked schools and "groups of people working together locally." Just 13 percent picked political leaders.

A similar question asked: "Who is best suited to solve the complex problems facing our society?" Seventy-nine percent said "average people." Only 18 percent picked "experts."

This "bottom-up" attitude toward tackling problems also is seen in the proliferation of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), addressing everything from local watersheds to the power of the World Trade Organization.

So while who is president may be of waning importance to many Americans, this does not necessarily mean they are dropping civic participation altogether - just shifting their focus.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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