By Sandhya Somashekhar and Perry Bacon Jr.
Friday, April 2, 2010; A02
The health-care debate has generated intense levels of frustration among the bill's opponents, and those who say they are outright angry almost universally believe that the country is going in the wrong direction -- some say toward an America they no longer recognize.
Of the 26 percent of people who described themselves as "angry" about the new law in a recent Washington Post poll, virtually all also said the country was on the wrong track. In follow-up interviews, many went beyond health care as they spoke of their deep misgivings about the country's leadership and the changes taking place around them.
"I grew up in the '50s," said Hugh Pearson, 63, a retired builder from Bakersfield, Calif. "That was a wonderful time. Nobody was getting rich, nobody was doing everything big. But it was 'Ozzie and Harriet' days, 'Leave It to Beaver'-type stuff. Now we have all this MTV, expose-yourself stuff, and we have no morality left, not even by the legislators."
Pearson and others described a rising concern about illegal immigrants who they say fill hospital emergency rooms and drain public resources. In the follow-up interviews, they expressed a distrust with a government they believe is taking from the many and giving to the few. Nearly nine in 10 of those who are angry about the health-care bill say it represents a major and negative change for the country, with some interviewed after the poll saying they believe the country is moving toward socialism.
Tricia Farmer, 42, a pension administrator in Glenville, N.Y., said she is a Republican and a fiscal conservative who worries about the creeping expansion of the federal government. At the same time that Congress appears to be increasing spending, her own local school district is facing budget cuts. She worries about the world her elementary-school-age children will inherit.
"What I worry about is that they aren't going to have the choices that we had," she said. "There are going to be mandates for everything. Mandates and taxes, more and more, a heavier burden on them. I'm feeling we're headed toward a socialist society, and I feel that it's not going to be reversible if it keeps going the way that it is."
In the late-March poll, the "angry" population overlapped generally with those who identified as Republicans. They were overwhelming white (94 percent) and conservative (73 percent).
Many of those who listed themselves as "angry" said they felt Congress was operating in a vacuum, removed from the problems encountered by average people struggling against a tepid job market, sagging home values and dwindling retirement funds. About 85 percent strongly disapproved of the way Congress is doing its job.
Much of the language echoed that of the vocal, conservative "tea party" movement, as well as conservative talk radio and blogs.
"The tea party activists represent Middle America. They are the hardworking Americans who see their country eroding in front of their eyes," said Chris Domsch of suburban Kansas City, Mo. He said he is an independent but has never backed a Democratic presidential candidate.
A few voted for President Obama in 2008, such as Chris Lionette, 43, who works in employee relations at a company in Holmdel, N.J. He said he believes the health-care bill is deeply flawed.
"I think it was done for political reasons, that it was done in a rather hasty fashion, and in my opinion there are other issues facing this country we need to be addressing," Lionette said, naming immigration and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Karen Hamrick, 63, said her southern Kentucky town of Hopkinsville hasn't been the same since Flynn Enterprises closed a jeans-making factory nearby in 2004. Nearby Fort Campbell provides a jolt to the economy, but only when its soldiers are there, the retired dance teacher said. When they are deployed, many of the families pack up and head home, too, she said.
Though she is a registered Democrat, she considers herself a "Southern Democrat" and believes the health-care bill will rob the majority in a misguided effort to help a small number of disadvantaged people.
"It's not realistic. It's very idealistic, and if we lived in that kind of world it would be wonderful," she said. "But where it's left is in our back pockets."
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.