Across the country, anger, frustration and fear among voters as election nears

The Washington Post's Philip Rucker journeys across America talking with voters to get to the heart of this volatile moment in American politics.
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 12:33 AM

Travel through the political battlegrounds in these final days before Election 2010, and it becomes clear how much the tenor of this recession-plagued country has changed in the two years since Barack Obama was elected president on his message of hope and change.

A far grimmer mood now pervades the electorate, one shaped not just by the immediacy of the economic distress that has hit virtually every household, but by fears that it might take years for everyone, from the average family to the federal government, to climb out of the hole.

Anger is one word that is often used to describe the electorate this year. But one word alone cannot adequately capture the sentiments expressed by voters on doorsteps and street corners, at community centers or candidate rallies. Along with the anger there is fear, worry, nervousness, disappointment, anxiety and disillusionment.

The impact will be felt Tuesday. Republicans are poised to reap the benefits of the enormous dissatisfaction with the status quo. How deeply and how broadly remains for the voters to decide, but there is little doubt that the outcome will change the balance of power in Washington.

The winners should take little comfort from the results. Dissatisfaction with Republicans also runs deep, and voters have conflicted expectations about what should happen in Washington over the next two years. Politicians of both parties will remain on trial.

Everyone, it seems, has a grievance. Many think the federal government has abandoned the middle class. On the right, many view Obama's policies as creeping - some say galloping - socialism. On the left, many consider the conservatism of some tea-party-backed candidates as far outside the mainstream. Across the spectrum is a widespread feeling that Washington is broken almost beyond repair.

Clark Bisbee was on his way to pick up an absentee ballot in Jackson, Mich., on a recent afternoon when he stopped to talk about the midterm elections. Over the past few years, he said, he has seen the value of his house plummet, the value of his office building plunge, his family travel agency go out of business and his once-healthy IRA shrink.

"I went from maybe having a net worth of a million and a half [dollars] to being underwater on everything," he said as the wind whipped along the nearly empty downtown streets. "I'm angry," he said, repeating the words for emphasis.

Bisbee, 61, a former Republican state legislator, speaks only for himself, but he articulates many of the emotions swirling around the country as the elections approach.

In Colorado, a Vietnam veteran worries about the drift of the nation under Obama and says he has to "stand up for this country one more time." In Ohio, a disappointed Obama supporter says she is nonetheless as fired up as she was in 2008, fearful of what she considers a powerful Republican backlash that will harm the country. In the Detroit suburbs, a woman tells a reporter of her feelings that Washington has helped the rich and the poor but has ignored the middle class.

"The mood is a combination of frustration and fear and desperation and down," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who helps oversee the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. "Everybody wants to talk about it as anger, and anger is certainly there. But it cuts much deeper than the traditional anger that you see in so many elections. This one really goes to the sense of people feeling on the edge and 'How do I make life work?' They're striking out in all directions in order to just change things."

Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster and Hart's partner in the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, said, "The words I would use are 'anxious' and 'worn out.' People are losing hope. . . . We are in a very unusual, long economic crunch that is making people feel very, very anxious. People are used to down times where America bounces back, but they're not seeing it bounce back."

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