On U.S. economy, voter concern runs deep

Polls show long-term economic health occupies minds as much as a looming slump.

Alfredo Sosa - staff
Trade worries: Container ships docked at California’s Port of Oakland in December. Voters cite the trade deficit as one long-term economic problem that needs solving. Polls show that concerns over long-term financial security are likely to occupy voters during election season.

American voters aren't just concerned about getting through a near-term slump. Today's uncertainty also reflects growing concerns about long-term opportunities and financial security.

Lou Preston, an organic farmer in Healdsburg, Calif., says he hopes the next generation of Americans can enjoy economic progress the way previous generations have. But he sees a host of problems to confront, notably the loss of manufacturing jobs and a widening divide between wealthy and blue-collar Americans.

"A healthy middle class is a very important part of our economic base and that seems to be eroding," he says.

Such concerns have come to the forefront in recent public opinion polls.

A survey released last month by the Pew Research Center, for example, found that the economy has overtaken Iraq in recent weeks as the most important problem facing America. But the poll also reveals that an undercurrent of unease on economic issues has been strong for several years.

Even a year ago, the same Pew survey found that more than half of Americans listed securing Medicare and Social Security, "dealing with energy problems," "reducing the budget deficit," and confronting poverty on their short list of priorities for the president and Congress. Those same issues loomed large again in last month's poll, even as worry about the economy rose higher on the list.

"You basically have had a perfect storm" of challenges that affect American pocketbooks, says Peter Morici, a University of Maryland economist.

Despite the troubles – some of which have contributed to drag the economy toward recession in recent months – neither economists nor most ordinary voters have lost faith in America as a land of opportunity.

"The US economy is quite resilient and creative, and people are doing some wonderful things," says Mr. Preston.

"The situation is certainly repairable," says Mr. Morici.

In fact, nations always have long-term challenges as well as opportunities. And generally, America has shown that a free and stable nation will tend to grow rather than stagnate.

Still, economists share some of the same concerns as ordinary voters. High oil prices, record levels of household debt, even the growing federal deficits forecast in President Bush's new budget all point in some measure to long-term financial challenges, not just cyclical weakness.

The short- and long-run challenges point in different directions.

In the long run, boosting prosperity involves hard choices about the size and structure of government programs, and how to boost business investment in job-creating operations.

But right now, voters want to see a stalled economy revive. A roughly $150 billion economic stimulus package, now being fashioned in Washington, might help do that through tax rebates and other measures.

"It is a huge mistake for any country to try to solve a long-term problem at a time when the shortterm problem really demands the opposite," says Peter Gutmann, an economist at Baruch College in New York.

The recent shift in public mood on the economy, interestingly, moves Republicans and Democrats closer together, at least in their level of concern.

A year ago, more Democrats cited "strengthen the economy" as a priority in the Pew survey. Today, three-fourths of all Republicans, Democrats, and Independents share that view.

For Chadds Ford, PA, resident Donna Diver, part of the challenge is on view every day in her work as a job recruiter: Less-skilled job seekers are falling further behind.

"Folks that do not have enough education and expertise in an area are harder to fit in somewhere," she says.

She's also looking cautiously at her own short-term situation.

Amid news about the economy slowing, "you always have that feeling in your gut that I need to make as much money as I can now because I don't know what the rest of the year is going to look like."

With all this on her mind, she says "Democrats need a shot" in the White House after eight years of Republican control.

That sentiment – going against the incumbent party – is common during economic downturns.

Voters' darkening view has been affecting the tone of the presidential election campaign in recent weeks. And come fall, it poses a special challenge for the Republican nominee, analysts say.

In Cambridge, Mass., Robert Heywood says he's more concerned about the short-term health of the economy, not the long run. "Prices are outrageous," he says, comparing his grocery costs with those he faced in Baltimore a few years ago.

But he worries that today's youths, including fellow African-Americans, won't be able to do better economically than their parents.

"When I was growing up, I had way more to look forward to," says Mr. Heywood, who now lives on disability insurance. "We need to get change going. I'm tired of the same old same old – and I don't care if it's a Republican or a Democrat."

The penchant for "change," shared by many voters, reflects more than just economic issues.

But the financial worries have been piling up. In a USA Today/Gallup poll released Tuesday, half of Americans say they worry they won't be able to maintain their standard of living.

Large numbers say they've been affected by the movement of jobs overseas, by problems in the housing market, by stock market declines, and by rising prices for college, healthcare, and energy.

Still, America's economic mood falls short of all-out pessimism. It's notable that the presidential candidate who arguably most emphasized Americans' economic anxieties, John Edwards, recently dropped out of the running.

One reason: The unemployment rate, while edging up in recent months, remains relatively low. Sizable majorities are satisfied with their jobs and believe their own circumstances will improve.

"It's hard to disentangle" long-term anxieties from short-term ones," says Scott Keeter, Pew's director of research.

Rising gasoline prices are an immediate concern, he says. Yet he says people also see "larger forces at work than just a single bogeyman like 'it's the oil companies' or … the sheikhs in the Middle East."

Al Cramer, a self-employed software engineer in Cambridge, says he's most concerned with long-term issues even though short-term ones seem "pressing."

"It's the middle class and the working class who are worse off now," he says. The economy is "going to help those candidates calling for change rather than the establishment."

Alison Tully in Los Angeles and Sarah McCann in Cambridge, Mass., contributed to this article.

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