Poll Finds Pessimism on U.S. Course
By Richard Morin
The survey found that 57 percent of those interviewed said the country was headed in the wrong direction. Three out of four say they do not trust the government or its leaders to do what is right -- a view shared even by those who have prospered the most over the last four years.
Those results suggest that money is not everything and that prosperity alone will not return the "rosy glow" of optimism and national trust that political scientists say Americans have lost in the last three decades.
"The American family is dying, crime is going through the ceiling in many places, and there are unprecedented numbers of fatherless homes," said Thomas Seaman, 46, a textile plant manager living in Hamburg, Pa., who was interviewed for the poll.
"Something's wrong," he added, even if the economy's right. Others interviewed consistently stressed various issues related to the country's moral health, as well as education, race, homelessness and immigration.
The survey did find some modest improvement in the national mood. Fewer Americans now than in recent years say they're "angry" with the federal government. Still, just a third of those interviewed expressed satisfaction with the way that government works.
One politician who has prospered, apparently from the economy, has been President Clinton. Although his job approval rating slipped to 58 percent in the poll, down from 64 percent last month, this was the 20th consecutive Post-ABC News poll that his job rating has topped 50 percent, extending back to July 1995. That makes him about as popular as Ronald Reagan was at the height of his presidency.
Among those Americans who said they were better off now than they were four years ago, 68 percent approved of the job Clinton is doing, a view shared by 42 percent of those whose finances had suffered. A total of 1,526 randomly selected adults were interviewed Sunday through Wednesday for this survey. Margin of sampling error for the overall results is plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The survey found that economic growth at home and relative peace abroad, coupled with recent progress to reduce the deficit, reform welfare and downsize the federal government have only modestly lightened the nation's collective spirits.
Only 4 in 10 -- 39 percent -- of those interviewed said the country was on the right track. Even among those who said they have personally prospered in the last four years, half said the country was seriously off course. Women were particularly pessimistic about the direction of the country: Only a third of all women, compared with nearly half the men interviewed, said the country was on the right track.
In follow-up interviews, many survey participants said they were satisfied with the performance of the economy but gravely concerned about other problems, particularly the moral health of the nation and its families.
Diane Beardsley, 50, a homemaker living in Woodlands, Tex., worries about what her preteenage children see on television and hear on the radio. With barely concealed anger, she offered the popular song "Bitch" as just the latest example of eroding national values.
"Nothing is shocking anymore," Beardsley said. "Meredith Brooks is a `bitch' and she sings this and our 12-year-old daughter sings it, and so forth. That's shocking to me."
Others see divorce and out-of-wedlock births as a bigger threat to the country than the return of economic bad times. "The family has pretty much been destroyed," said Kim Midanik, 54, a minister living in Long Beach, Calif.
Many of those questioned also said they worry about crime. They were unconvinced by new government statistics showing that violent crime is down nationally.
"There's a lot more violence, particularly with kids these days, because families are changing" said Charlene Shuler, 64, a social worker in Butler, Pa.
Kimberly Howard agrees. "When people don't feel safe in their own cars going to and from work, it's just not a good thing," said Howard, 30, a secretary who lives in Paris, Ky. "And then to think that something might happen to you and the person who commits the crime against you gets nothing -- maybe a slap on the wrist, maybe even the death penalty, but it takes so many years for anything to be done and even then sometimes nothing is done."
But others disagreed. They said America was beginning to make progress on many of its biggest problems, including crime.
"Crime has been going down, which is always good," said Charles Willis, 22, a college student living in Champaign, Ill. "We're starting to put the federal government back on track, as far as cutting down spending to live within its means."
Jason Hallman says he even sees progress in race relations, a problem that Clinton has made a priority.
"Race relations are improving. They aren't great, but they are, I think, getting better," said Hallman, 36, a bakery salesman in Portland, Ore. "At least we're talking."
Despite economic good times, Americans remain largely suspicious of the federal government and their political leaders, though the anger of the early '90s has clearly dissipated.
"I don't expect too much" from government or political leaders, said Kimberly Howard. "They're all crooked. It's just the degree of crookedness."
That cynicism extends to Clinton. Even many of Clinton's supporters remain cool to the president and expressed reservations about the direction that he was taking the country.
"I'd give him a B-minus," said Jerrold Maddox, 65, a college professor who lives in Pennsylvania Furnace, Pa. "I think that he tends not to be willing to stick by the convictions that I think he has, like the commitment to reform health care. And I think he caved in to a lot of other interests on welfare reform. But on the other hand, there are a lot of things he's done well. Employment is fairly high. . . . And I think foreign affairs have gone well."
While Clinton is popular with the public, Congress is not. Only 39 percent said they approved of the job that Congress was doing, while 54 percent disapproved, unchanged from a year ago. (That's still better than October 1994, when the congressional job rating hit a record low, with 18 percent expressing approval.)
Americans are divided whether Clinton and Republicans in Congress are cooperating more on the country's biggest problems. Fewer than half -- 43 percent -- said they are, while 52 percent said "there's as much partisan bickering as ever."
Most Americans say it's too soon for them to judge what this president and Congress have really accomplished. Only one in six say they expect the new law to balance the budget in five years, as promised. A majority believe that the tax cuts negotiated between Clinton and congressional Republicans also will raise -- not lower -- their taxes.
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