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What Americans want from the next president

On the eve of a historically tight election, a writer drives through swing states and listens to the voices of America, hearing one overriding plea: 'Washington, stop bickering. Get something done!'

By , Correspondent

The Sunday service wraps up and parishioners file into the fellowship hall at Trinity Episcopal Church, an imposing structure in this southern Wisconsin town built out of stones so thick that it seems they could only be moved by deity. Weak coffee burns on a warmer near a wall rack of communal mugs. Sweet goods pack a foldout table – cheese strudel, sticky buns, cinnamon-sugar donuts.

Paula DeRubeis and Anne Wanke stand nearby, chatting above the din of children. They share the same city and the same faith. But the same politics? Not so much.

Ms. DeRubeis is a staunch Democrat. She believes health care is an absolute right – that everyone in America should be covered, even if it means the federal government has to pay for it.

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Ms. Wanke is an unswerving Republican, a fifth-generation Janesville resident who is an inveterate supporter of Rep. Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney's running mate, whose home sits a few blocks from the church. She wants more defense spending and a return to traditional family values. She believes liberals have infused the country with too much squishy political correctness.

Yet there is one sentiment that both seem to share: They are Americans first and Republicans or Democrats second.

"My best friend in the world is a super-left-wing liberal," says Wanke. "I mean, she's pro-abortion. I'm pro-life. She's very Democrat. But we've worked on projects for 30-something years in this town and love each other dearly. I wish our politicians did the same thing."

On the eve of an election that everyone says involves two "stark" choices for America, people across the country have a simple plea for Washington: Work together. Get along. Whoever wins the White House, reach out to those across the aisle and solve the nation's problems.

In a journey through the nation's major swing states, from the neon of Nevada, through the grain elevator towns of Iowa, to the soccer-van suburbs of Virginia, almost everyone I encountered wants politicians in the nation's capital to put their differences aside and get something done. They don't expect it to be easy. And they don't expect law-makers to abandon their principles entirely.

What they do want is an effort to make progress on the most pressing issues of the day, from jobs to immigration to debt, without using politics as a baton to bludgeon opponents. They yearn for lawmakers to act with the same kind of urgency and civility that they do when solving problems around their kitchen tables and in their school board conference rooms.

This is a government, after all, not a gladiators' arena for ideology and ego.

Or, as Sam Castrogiovanni, a mechanic in Las Vegas for 20 years who has the grease under his fingernails to prove it, notes: "I could care less if some politician has a 'D' or an 'R' behind their name. I just want some results."

This, at least, is the overriding theme I heard. On an early September morning, I loaded the bare essentials into my 1984 Volkswagen Vanagon, and left my home in Kalamazoo, Mich., for a trip through the undecided states of this supposedly polarized country.

The aim was simple: Spend time with average people, and ask them about what they want from their government, what their lives are like, and where they want the nation to go in the coming years.

And then listen.

I found people struggling mightily to pay their mortgages and utility bills who nonetheless hold out hope of better days ahead. I found people not so optimistic, their yearnings rusted by years of partisan bickering. For them, the American dream is just an idea existing somewhere out on the horizon – visible, perhaps, but unobtainable.

Make no mistake: I found many people who harbor sharply conflicting views – of a government that is too large, of one that isn't doing enough.

But even the most partisan and opinionated among them feel Americans need more compromise: They believe almost universally that the dueling-pistol culture of Washington is hurting the nation at a time when there is enough hardship already.

Out here, in the diners and used-car lots of America, politics runs subordinate to pragmatism.

I found the stories of these Americans often screaming in silence to be heard.

Washington, are you listening?

What jobs happened in Vegas haven't stayed in Vegas

I start my journey in Las Vegas, a unique amalgam of sin and sand, a place historian Kevin Starr has called "boisterous, demotic, a figment of its own imagination, the Elvis Presley of American cities."

I find Mr. Castrogiovanni sitting on a worn office chair at his auto repair shop off Decatur Avenue, its fabric seat stained with grease, cars hovering above him on hydraulic lifts.

"When can I fit you in?" Castrogiovanni is saying into a cordless phone while texting on a cellphone in his other hand. "At this point, I really don't know what to tell you. Don't call me. I'll call you."

Castrogiovanni's bays are full, which is good since Nevada's economy still languishes from the Great Recession. The unemployment rate stands at 11.8 percent – four points above the national average. Not long ago, Castrogiovanni's wife visited the county health department, where officials were handing out loaves of bread to Vegas's destitute.

The feeling of malaise is particularly acute here because of how far and fast the state has fallen. Just a few years ago, Las Vegas was one of the nation's most rapidly growing cities – a Shangri-La of sun and slot machines. Today, it is a stucco expanse of foreclosed homes and forgotten dreams.

Castrogiovanni arrived 20 years go when there was chatter about Las Vegas becoming the first postmodern city of the 21st century – one dependent on tourism, entertainment, services, and anything entrepreneurs could dream up. So he, like most people across the state, remains anxious, even though the phone in his besmudged office never seems silent.

"I believe the economy is working for the very rich," he says. "They don't have any problems. The middle class, here in Vegas, it's very wasted. People don't have money. They're losing their homes left and right. You can't have a strong nation without a strong middle class."

The mechanic, who has tight-cropped hair and a Tom Selleck mustache, expected more from President Obama. "Adding $5 trillion in debt to the economy is ... not how you build a foundation for the future," he says. "We need tax breaks; we need to get small businesses going again."

In the desert, downturns can be dated like trees. Just drive south a few miles on Decatur, turn west onto Wigwam Street, and there lies "Sunset Pass," a gated community of red-tile-roofed homes. Across the street is a moonscape of empty sand and rocks. The line denotes starkly where the city's housing bubble collapsed. Out here, civilization ends abruptly.

Yet not everything is grim with Nevada's economy or mood. Consider Elko, in the northeastern part of the state. It is the boom to Las Vegas's bust. The world's second largest gold mine sits about 40 miles outside town, and unemployment in the Elko area stands at an enviable 5.5 percent. It's not uncommon to hear talk about commodity prices in local cafes and saloons (and, yes, the town does have saloons). A headline across the front page of the Elko Daily proclaims: "Gold price hits $1,700." Inside, a 136-page "Mining Quarterly" insert is full of what any city would covet – hundreds of job openings. Billboards along Interstate 80 in California and Nevada advertise for mineworkers, too.

Eric Mitchell and Gus Rackley, stout men in black leather vests, sit outside the Stray Dog Bar and Grille on Fifth Street, bathed in bright neon light. "That's what this town is – casinos and gold mining," Mr. Mitchell says. "If you want a job, you go to the gold mines."

But the prosperity has come at a price. The gold boom has driven up housing prices and other expenses. The mining industry has also brought in a large number of transient workers, lured by big paychecks, which does little to create a sense of rootedness or lasting prosperity, according to Mitchell. He worries about a comet economy – a temporary surge, with all the conspicuous consumption that comes with it.

As if on cue, a truck rolls by on Idaho Street, hauling a large sailboat. "Like that," says Mr. Rackley. "A sailboat in Nevada. Why ... does a man in Nevada have a sailboat?"

The misgivings Rackley and Mitchell have are ones that every boom-bust town has struggled with for generations: how to create a diverse economy and jobs that last. Mitchell sees larger lessons for America: It's time to stop sending jobs offshore and spending money rebuilding roads in Afghanistan.

"We need more good jobs, you know?" he says. "We've shipped too many jobs overseas, and it's time we started looking out for ourselves."

View from a VFW post in Colorado

Vernon Davis sits in a booth at VFW Post 899 off Main Street in downtown Alamosa, Colo. The septuagenarian served one tour in the Korean War and three more in Vietnam, flying aircraft for the US Army. I ask him if he can tell me about his time in the service.

"No," he says. "I'm not going to talk about that."

What he will tell me is that he didn't care where a man came from, what color he was, or what he believed in when he was doing his 22 years of active duty. "You meet a lot of guys from a thousand different backgrounds in the service," he says. "You might not always agree with each other. You might see things totally different from them. But when it matters most, you come together to get the job done."

He pines for that kind of cooperation in Washington. "A leader takes care of his troops," Mr. Davis says. "And right now our government is not doing that."

"We're digging ourselves a great big financial hole, and one day we're not going to be able to climb out of it," he adds. "But you don't see any of these politicians working together to get it done. You can't keep printing money."

Behind him sits a spare table containing only an overturned wine glass, a Bible, a single rose in a vase, and a white plate. It's a table for the "lone unknown," for the missing in action.

"Gone but not forgotten," Davis says. "We don't forget the sacrifice of men."

Now he's looking for a little sacrifice from politicians, including in the form of budget cuts. Yet when asked to be more specific, he talks about the kind of trade-offs that bedevil the blue-suited class of Washington. To reduce the deficit, many Democrats and even some tea party types want a reduction in the Pentagon budget. Not Davis.

"If they cut the military, they're cuttin' their own throat," he says. "There's people out there that are just waiting to hurt us. We shouldn't make it easier for them."

Farther down the road in Colorado Springs, a big military and religious-right hub at the foot of Pikes Peak, Eduardo Briones echoes some of those sentiments. He, too, spent most of his adult life in the military, joining the Army after dropping out of college in the early 1980s.

He's been stationed all over the world and volunteered for assignments in Central America during the Sandinista uprising and the Gulf War in 1991, because he wanted an "adventure."

The adventures might be over, but the challenges are not. For a career that spanned 20 years, he gets a modest $1,700 per month pension. He believes Washington needs to do more to take care of its veterans.

"People don't realize the sacrifices that people in the military make," he says. "We need to bring back the draft, that way everybody could have some skin in the game."

Ann Perkins-Parrott has a more global concern that she thinks the next president should put in his in-box: reducing greenhouse gases. She owns a quaint used-book store, appropriately called The Bookcase, in Durango, a hip mountain town in southwestern Colorado.

She says she can see the effects of global warming all around her: in the hotter, drier summers; in the more intense wildfire seasons; in the smaller snowpacks in the mountains.

"I don't care what's causing it," she says. "The government needs to do something about it – start investing more in alternative energies."

The Beaumont, Texas, native is a proud liberal whose father was good friends with Lyndon Johnson. But she embraces the idea of compromise. "There's always meeting ground somewhere out there," she says. "It's very important to meet in the middle because that's where most people live. Congress often forgets that."

Bowling alley wisdom of Iowa

Shafts of yellow light emanate from the Lucky Lanes bowling alley through two swinging doors, cutting into the darkness that has folded over Denison, in western Iowa. Inside, men and women in worn jeans and sweat shirts bearing the names of feed companies or tractors chat at tables, getting up only in the quest for a strike.

This is Carolyn Quandt's one night out, the one time she gets a few hours to herself, away from her three kids. She rises normally at 3 a.m. to go to work at Farmland Foods, a meatpacking plant that employs 1,500 people here in a town of 8,300. She puts in nine to 11 hours a day arranging strips of bacon in packages, a task that takes place in a 46 degree F. room. To stave off the cold, she usually wears three shirts, a coat, and socks as thick as a sleeping bag.

"I'm the one that lines it up and makes it look all pretty," says Ms. Quandt, laughing. "I'm just happy to have a job. You can't have a one-paycheck household anymore."

Quandt and her husband, who also works, are struggling, though not as much as many here. She knows several families who have lost their homes and too many others who are losing hope. "The government has to help these people," she says of homeowners unable to pay their mortgages. "It has a role to play, to at least help keep folks on their feet with a roof over their heads."

When she works on the line, Quandt toils beside Hispanics, Sudanese, Koreans, and native Iowans. Diversity here is as prevalent as the smell of curing pork. "We all get along," says Quandt. "We look out for each other."

She thinks America should embrace more of the same virtues – cooperation, acceptance, compromise. "The country is changing. It's getting more diverse," she says. "I accept it and think it's a good thing. Sure, there are problems at times, but if you get past the differences, you learn from one another. We need more of that in America."

A worn sign on the edge of town proclaims: "It's a Wonderful Life." Donna Reed, who starred in the movie that inspired Denison's slogan, grew up here. For a long time, locals said the town could have been a stand-in for Bedford Falls, the fictional community in Frank Capra's film that exuded traditional values and small-town virtues. Is it still?

Brian Newell emerges from the bowling alley. He works in construction, does odd jobs, anything he can to pay bills for his wife and 16-year-old son. He struggles, too, but does not share Quandt's enthusiasm for a fast-changing America – or Denison.

"We got all these [people from other] countries coming here for a better life, but we don't have a better life," Mr. Newell says. "We can barely take care of ourselves. Why are we taking care of them?"

In Cedar Rapids, on the other side of the state, Adam Miller sees the world crowding in on Iowa as well. His concern isn't foreigners coming to America to take local jobs as much as it is local jobs going to foreigners overseas. He's watched friends lose their positions at factories when the work was moved offshore, mainly to China.

There used to be "a job on every corner," he says. "If you saw a job site and said, 'Hey, I can pick up something heavy and put it down where you tell me,' you'd be working 50 hours that week. It's not like that anymore."

He wants Washington to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. He calls companies "patriotic" that put country over profits. But he's not optimistic change will come. Until corporate campaign contributions are limited, he worries that big business will be able to operate any way it wants.

"I think the American dream has changed a lot," he says. "There used to be a genuine dream that you were going to work hard and it was going to pay off. That's not the case anymore. Half the people's dream is to just get by. It's a realization more than a dream."

Work versus grandkids in Wisconsin

Shirley Thalmann's dreams haven't been shattered, just delayed. The 60-year-old resident of Platteville, a college town in the rumpled hills of southwestern Wisconsin, wanted to be retired by now. But she isn't – and can't.

She's followed the rules her whole life. She's worked hard, saved her money. But when the stock market crashed in 2003, and again in 2008-09, she and her husband saw their portfolio plummet. Now Ms. Thalmann is looking at working well into her 60s – a time when she wanted to be with her grandchildren.

"I don't want to [work]," she says. "I have grandchildren, but I can't see them because they're three and four hours away."

She believes Social Security and Medicare will make life more manageable in her senior years. But she also thinks those programs need to be reformed to make them viable for the generations behind her.

To do that, Thalmann feels Washington should adopt more of the thriftiness synonymous with the upper Midwest.

"The government needs to run itself like we run our household," she says. "You can't keep spending what you don't have."

Cuts need to be made, she adds, but not without thinking about how they will affect people. "They [lawmakers] have to start balancing and prioritizing, but do it in a way that's not going to hurt the little people so much," she says. "The rich should pay their fair share, too. They have [tax] loopholes that the common man doesn't."

Jeff Gilbertson wants to see entitlements reformed as well – and he doesn't care which party does it. He is sitting at the Zoxx 411 Club in Janesville watching his – everyone's – favorite team in Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers.

The club sits next to the former General Motors plant on West State Street in Janesville that was shuttered in 2009 after 90 years of operation. For decades, the plant churned out vehicles and jobs that were handed down like heirlooms from father to son to grandson. The plant, many here say, was the light that kept the middle-class dream illuminated.

Mr. Gilbertson knows a lot of the people who lost their jobs or were transferred to other GM plants out of state. "There's a lotta hurt here," says Gilbertson. "A lotta hurt."

The jobs of today, he says, don't offer much in the way of benefits. He sees the government playing a bigger role as the provider of retirement pensions – and that worries him.

"Social Security is dying, but I want to make sure it's there when I need it," he says. "I paid into it my whole life. It needs to be fixed – no band-aids, no quick fixes – a real kind of reform. But I don't see either party doing that right now."

Soccer moms, and dads, in Ohio

How Washington spends money is a near-universal complaint. On a brisk Sunday, Garfield Deeter stares out across a worn soccer field. His 8-year-old daughter is sitting on a bench on the other sideline, her head in her hands. It's near the end of the match and her team is losing, 4-0. But Mr. Deeter isn't worried so much about the score – "they're learning," he says. Instead, he's reflecting on the world she will inherit as a woman.

"The debt we are piling up now is going to be handed down to my daughter," Deeter says. "And if she has kids one day, to my grandkids. The way we're spending money is just not sustainable."

Deeter works for an ice manufacturing company in Findlay, Ohio. His friends call him "Ice Man." His pique with Washington is caused both by how much the government is spending and how intrusive it is in people's lives. He believes the government has gotten far too big and is choking the country with useless regulations that stifle free enterprise.

Medicare and Social Security are bankrupting the nation, he says, and should be privatized. He thinks younger workers should be allowed to divert their Social Security taxes into private, market-based accounts because "if you're under 40, it's not going to be there for you."

"I had to work for everything I have. Nothing was handed to me," he says. "We've got an attitude of entitlement in this country now, that we're owed something. No one is owed anything unless they work for it. And you know what? I'm a registered Democrat."

Just down the sideline, Angie Coakley expresses views that are more recognizably Democratic – but she's not a Democrat. She's an independent who prides herself on voting for the person, not the party.

Ms. Coakley is a technology consultant from Sylvania, a town 45 minutes north. She is high-fiving other parents because her daughter's team has just scored another goal, making the score 5-0. Unless something changes, she sees a future for her daughter of uneven economic opportunity, in which the rich continue to gain more wealth while middle-class and blue-collar workers toil harder for less.

"The wealthy did fine during the recession; it was the middle class that took the hit," she says. "There is too much wealth at the very top. It's not fair. They need to pay a little more."

As for the size of government, Coakley says that she doesn't want there to be any more Washington than is necessary to protect the country, educate children, pave the roads, and sustain a social safety net. But the most intrusive government of all is the one that comes into the doctor's office.

She has no trouble compromising – "I do that in my job all the time," she says – but she won't budge on one issue: keeping abortion safe and legal, and giving women unfettered access to contraception. She wants to see federal funding for agencies that provide access to contraception and women's health services – like Planned Parenthood – sustained.

"There's talk of government getting too big," she says. "But you know what? The biggest type of government is the type that tells a woman what she can and can't do with her body."

Diners, drive-ins, and Angie Droden in Virginia

The breakfast rush is over at 29 Diner in Fairfax, Va. Angie Droden emerges from a back room to start her shift, bidding farewell to another waitress.

"Take care, honey," says Ms. Droden. "At least you get to go home."

Droden doesn't mind being here, but it's not what she wants, either. She's worked at 29 Diner on and off for more than 20 years. It pays her bills – barely. Health insurance is something of a dream to her. The last time she had health-care coverage was more than a decade ago, when she was on her ex-husband's policy. Everyone in America deserves to be able to see a doctor, she says, and not have to worry about it bankrupting them.

"There are people all over this country who work their tails off, like me, who can't afford to see a doctor," she says. "That's just not right and it needs to change. We got to find a way to do that."

Droden picks up two breakfast orders and takes them over to a couple in a booth, while one of the cooks drops quarters into the jukebox. Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man" pierces the air.

"There's got to be better jobs for people," says Droden, filling up syrup bottles. "Why is it that so many people in this country work so hard and get so little?"

She is not a charity case, she says, and has never asked for anything but the opportunity to work. "My parents gave up on me, but I fought and survived," she says. "I want my government to fight for me, too."

Brenda Berry works at a food establishment with a little less country music and cholesterol – Harvest Moon Natural Foods, an organic grocery store in a strip mall in Winchester, Va.

Ms. Berry first voted in 1980, pulling the lever for Ronald Reagan. She hasn't voted for a Republican presidential candidate since.

The "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" philosophy touted by many conservatives is misguided, Berry says. She believes government may not be the solution, as Reagan once famously put it, but it can be a force for fairness.

"Corporations are getting away with too many tax breaks, and the wealthy are, too," she says. "Meanwhile, those who aren't wealthy are suffering. There needs to be much more economic equality, and government has a role to make that happen."

Military spending should be drastically cut, she says, with the savings used to make college more affordable, rebuild the nation's infrastructure, and train the unemployed.

"It's time to start minding our own business and taking care of our own," she says.

As a starting point, she suggests a change in the atmosphere of Washington, from one of pugnaciousness to possibility. "We need to start cooperating with each other a lot more," she says. "We can't keep on going like this, always divided. It's going to tear us apart."

Is anyone out there listening?

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