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And Now an Attempt to Connect Real People With the Shifting Public Mood

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Suddenly, it's all about my money, not your war.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, more than twice as many people now say their financial future is more important than what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than five years of concern for the loss of American life and treasure abroad has suddenly given way to worry about our personal bank accounts.

"For many Americans, the war has become kind of stale news," Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, told me recently. "People think it's hopeless. Now they want to blame it on the Iraqis. They concluded that the Iraqis don't want to live in peace, so they threw the switch."

Lights out on Iraq. Spotlight on our pocketbooks.

According to the poll, this dramatic change of priorities has occurred within the past three weeks. Did our economic insecurities get stirred up that fast? Are we that easily spooked by the prospect of losing what we have or not getting what we want?

Such fears have been exploited before. So what happens this time if the Bush administration declares a preelection Orange Alert? Does the "war on terrorism" suddenly become the hot new issue, a reason to vote Republican, again? On one hand, we express hope that our next president will unify the country; on the other hand, it seems to take little more than fear of a shrinking wallet for us to forget about others and start asking: What about me?

Starting today, I'll hit the streets with Washington Post videographer Liz Heron to ask voters to take five minutes and explain what's important to them and why. This afternoon, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/take5 to watch the first of three videos featuring highlights of our conversations. You can also post your thoughts.

As we head into next Tuesday's Potomac Primary, our region is poised to have an impact on the selection of the major-party presidential nominees. But what do we base our choices on?

The economy?

"Most economists aren't sure how the economy is doing," Cowen told me. "It seems that many people are just overreacting to temporary fluctuations. People who used to be optimistic about rising home prices and rising stocks are now saying, 'I'm not gaining anymore, and I don't like it.' Unless you have to sell your house right now, however, the effects will be short-term."

Nevertheless, 39 percent of Americans consider the economy and jobs the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign, up 10 percentage points in three weeks, according to the Post-ABC poll. No other issue comes close, not even the war in Iraq, which has cost thousands of American lives, perhaps as many as a million Iraqi lives and, speaking of the economy, could cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $2 trillion by 2015.

"There have been social experiments where if one beggar comes up to you and asks for change, you may give it to him," Cowen said. "But if 200 beggars come up, none of them are likely to get anything. When a problem becomes too large or overwhelming, we tend to shut it out."

Is Iraq becoming America's 200 beggars?

Although my Take 5 surveys won't be as scientific as, say, a Pew poll, you'll at least get to see the interviews. I hope to include a good mix of people by age, race and sex, as well as people from various parts of the Washington region. Not that any of these characteristics determine a person's political views, but a good mix does make for more interesting visual content.

Consider the grimaced morning look. You see it on people and think they must hate their jobs. But if the polls are to be believed, we panic at the thought of not having one. A contradiction? We'll ask a few frowny faces.

In polling circles, this approach is called "purposefully haphazard" and has the advantage of showing what a hodgepodge of people we are. Given all of our different looks and contrasting styles, it's a wonder we can stand to be on the same planet with one another.

But here we are -- Americans reveling together in a historic choice of presidential candidates, with the leading contenders a 46-year-old black man, a 60-year-old white woman and a 71-year-old white man.

Let's talk. Then vote.

E-mail:milloyc@washpost.com

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