Voters want hands-on president. Discussion groups project a 1990s version of Harry S. Truman

Americans would like their next president to be cut from the same cloth as Harry S. Truman. They want him to be vigorous and compassionate, with a touch of the common man. They also want him to have plenty of top-level national experience. This picture emerges from in-depth discussions conducted in January in Iowa and New Hampshire by the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies.

The study explored the opinions of half a dozen ``focus groups'' of Democrats, Republicans, and independents who were at least high school graduates and voted in 1984, 1986, or both. Growing concern was found among participants over the loss of jobs, moral decline, nuclear dangers, and the future of the nation, particularly opportunities for young people. But there was also confidence that the country will somehow overcome its problems.

The Roosevelt Center picked Iowa and New Hampshire because of the pivotal role those states play in presidential elections. Iowa has the first presidential caucuses, New Hampshire the first primary.

While the views of voters in the two states were not always the same, they did echo similar themes, particularly on economic problems. Many agreed that:

The American middle class, which once thrived on $14-an-hour jobs, is in jeopardy. The country appears to be moving toward a two-tiered, rich-poor class system.

Foreign competition and the federal budget deficit are driving US businesses and farmers into bankruptcy and contributing to the decline in good-paying jobs.

Big business, big government, and big labor all are exacerbating the nation's economic problems.

Today's children face major hardships because of the current failure to create good jobs, and many will be forced to move out of state to find jobs when they reach adulthood.

William A. Galston, director of economic and social programs at the Roosevelt Center, says there was a ``pervasive anxiety'' among participants.

This was reflected in the comments of a middle-aged Nashua, N.H., federal worker, who said the economy is like being ``on the outside of a shell; one of these days we're going to look inside and see that there's nothing holding this whole thing up.''

Despite such concerns, the study found that a deep-rooted patriotism made many voters optimistic that they, and the country, would eventually pull through.

They don't expect too much help from Washington, however. In fact, Washington is creating many of the problems, voters say, and should be reined in.

A retired factory worker in Davenport, Iowa, said: ``Anybody with an open purse can run the country and put it $2 trillion in debt.''

Japan is also blamed. Said a retired meat factory worker in Iowa: ``I believe that Japan has never stopped fighting the Second World War. They're taking us over [from] within.''

And the unions are criticized. A state employee in Des Moines said: ``The unions are not willing to compromise. So I really don't feel too sorry for them.''

The voters felt an improvement could be made in the political process. They feel manipulated by pollsters, media advisers, and political ads on TV.

And they want more straight talk from candidates and don't like negative ads. They feel overloaded with information, much of it unreliable or contradictory. They feel that candidates rely too heavily on media experts who instruct them in the art of dissembling.

While voters expressed general satisfaction with President Reagan, they are looking beyond the Reagan years. The next president, they say, should have ``hands on'' competence and extensive, top-level experience including foreign policy, and should also be his ``own man.'' An Iowa voter said: ``We need a statesman, somebody we can all look up to no matter what party we're in.''

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