Politics & Government

Sour Americans hungry for change as election approaches

A tattered American flag from a destroyed home in east Biloxi, Miss., flies two days after Hurricane Katrina.
A tattered American flag from a destroyed home in east Biloxi, Miss., flies two days after Hurricane Katrina. Patrick Schneider/Charlotte Observer

DES MOINES, Iowa — A year before they choose a new government for the post-Bush era, Americans are desperate to change the country's course.

According to opinion polls and interviews with political experts and voters, the U.S. population is more liberal than at any time in a generation, hungering to end the Iraq war, turn inward and use the federal government to solve problems at home.

Still, polling indicates, some want to turn farther right, demanding that the country fence off its Southern border, expel illegal immigrants and rein in a federal government grown fat under a Republican government they now dismiss as incompetent.

The surveys point to one thing almost all Americans tend to agree on: They're deeply unhappy with the way things are going in the United States and eager to move on. There's virtually no appetite to extend the Bush era, as there was at the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1988 or Bill Clinton's in 2000.

  • Just 1 in 5 Americans think the country is going in the right direction, the worst outlook since the Reagan-Bush era ended in 1992.
  • Less than one-third of Americans like the way the current President Bush is handling his job, among the lowest ratings in half a century. The people had similarly dismal opinions just before they ended the Jimmy Carter era in 1980, the Kennedy-Johnson years in 1968 and the Roosevelt-Truman era in 1952.
  • The ranks of people who want the government to help the poor have risen sharply since the early 1990s — dramatically among independents, but even among Republicans.
  • The public mood is evident in Iowa, the heartland state that votes first for major-party presidential nominees and a pivotal swing state in the last two presidential elections.

    "People are very unhappy, very unsettled,'' said Megan Phillips, a teacher from Centerville, a town of about 6,000 in southern Iowa.

    Phillips once considered herself a proud Republican. Small-town. Anti-abortion. Pro-gun.

    But she soured on Bush's landmark education overhaul, the No Child Left Behind Act. And she turned against the war — and Bush — with a passion that underscores how deeply the national unity that rose up after 9-11 has given way to cynicism.

    "People don't trust anything coming out of Washington,'' she said. "When Bush says we're winning the war in Iraq, I say, 'Oh really?' The weapons of mass destruction weren't there. Why are we still there? We want our people to come home. There are so many things at home that need to be taken care of."

    Her husband, Matt, works two jobs, one in a power plant in town, the other raising cattle on their farm. He's also a Republican, but is starting to question the war and wonder whether the country should turn its focus homeward.

    "Maybe we shouldn't be there. Maybe we should get out,'' he said. "I would never vote for a Democrat, and certainly not for Hillary Clinton. ... But — and I hate to say it — but maybe a Democrat is more apt to get things done at home.''

    As the cost of the war continues to rise, that's one big common refrain: Stop spending money in Iraq, and spend it at home. It's feeding a resurgence of support for liberal notions of using the federal government in ways that had been in decline for more than a decade.

    "We need to fix things,'' said Mary Howell, an independent from the Des Moines suburb of Urbandale. "We need to fix health care. We can spend billions in Iraq. But we have people at home who need help.''

    Even with a healthy economy — a new census report this week showed the poverty rate declining for the first time this decade — a lot of people feel squeezed by gas prices, health-care costs and college tuition.

    That doesn't drive everyone to seek help from Washington, but most want something different.

    "Things are a mess,'' said George Wagner, an auto mechanic from Homestead, west of Iowa City. "Manufacturing jobs are disappearing. Big business is running Washington. The little guy gets left behind."

    Wagner, a libertarian, also wants the country to look homeward.

    "We're not the policeman of the world. We should make friends with the people overseas we can do business with, secure the borders and take care of the people at home. Take care of the infrastructure. Older folks, medical stuff. If we stop spending so much overseas, we could give that money to churches to take care of people."

    Of course, there are those who feel good about the economy, who don't want to return to spending federal tax dollars to help the needy, who support the war.

    "Things are in pretty good shape," said Jim Granzow, a farmer and a Republican from Hubbard, Iowa.

    Even among most Republicans, however, there's disappointment in Bush and a restlessness for change. Stop illegal immigration. Curb runaway federal spending. Win in Iraq.

    Bill Hileman, a furniture salesman from Honey Creek, a small town near the Nebraska border, is a Republican who wouldn't want a third term for Bush.

    "I'd look for another Republican,'' Hileman said.

    His main complaint? He thinks Bush let illegal immigration run amok. "There are too many illegals, even here. It's hurting our economy and draining our resources."

    Chad Kluver, a pharmaceutical sales rep from the Des Moines suburb of Ankeny, voted for Bush but now wants someone who'll win the Iraq war.

    "I'm more jaded than anything else," he said. "We were misled. But it would be ridiculous to back out now. We need to finish what we started. If we back out now, it was all in vain. ... I want a candidate who can get it done as soon as possible and get the troops home."

    In a recent poll, 65 percent of Iowa Republicans said it was important to find a 2008 presidential candidate in the conservative mold of Reagan. Asked whether Bush fit that role, 8 percent said yes and 78 percent said no.

    The survey also found that 51 percent of Iowa Republicans want to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within six months.

    "It's a sour mood," said David Johnson, a former aide to Kansas Republican Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign. His public relations firm, Strategic Vision, conducted the poll for corporate clients.

    "There's a feeling that things are not going well. There are concerns about the economy, concerns about Iraq. ... They don't want a third term for Bush, not even Republicans. Among Democrats, I've never seen anything like it. And independents just want to be done with him."


    • More on the poll about the country's direction (.pdf).

    • More on the Bush approval rating.

    • More on the increase in support for government spending.

    • More on the poll of Iowa Republicans.
    • Related stories from McClatchy DC