Americans have a decidedly dour view of how things are going in the country and an outsized view of what one person — the president — can do about it.
In a year when talk of change is all the rage in the presidential campaign, people have great expectations for the next president’s ability to get things done, according to an extensive Associated Press-Yahoo News survey released Thursday.
Large majorities of voters believe the president has considerable sway on a range of big issues such as inflation, interest rates, the federal deficit, taxes and more. Fully three-quarters believe the president has at least some influence over health care costs, for example. Sixty-nine percent can see the president making gasoline prices go up or down.
They are less certain, though, about the president’s ability to change how things really work in Washington: 55 percent think it’s possible; 44 percent are doubtful, no matter who’s elected.
Call it optimism with a cynical streak. Or cynicism with an optimistic streak.
David Wells, a consultant from suburban Nashville, Tenn., calls it reality.
The 39-year-old Democrat thinks the next president has an opportunity to change things for the better. But probably only by moving quickly — before inevitably being sucked down by the undertow of Washington’s special interests.
“There’s the hope of what you see politically, and then there’s the reality,” says Wells, who’s backing Barack Obama but thinks Hillary Rodham Clinton might be OK, too. “No matter how high they aspire to be, the pool in which they swim is going to taint them sooner or later.”
Voters begin this election year with a grim assessment of the status quo. Roughly three-fourths say the country is on the wrong track.
And so the question, as framed for them by the presidential candidates, is who is best positioned to change things — someone with Washington experience who can do, or the outsider who can change how it’s done?
Americans are about evenly split on the answer, according to the poll conducted by Knowledge Networks. Fifty-two percent favor experience; 47 percent opt for an outsider.
Robert Colton, a Republican from Portland, Ore., comes down on the side of experience.
He yearns for someone who knows “how to work the system to get something done.”
“The one we have right now, he had no insider experience and look what he’s done,” Colton said, referring to President Bush. He likes Obama and Republican John McCain, both of them senators.
Barbara Ellis, an independent from Mesa, Ariz., thinks an outsider is the solution.
“I’m so tired of the pat on the back and ‘you do it for me, and I’ll do it for you’ kind of thing,” she said.
But in a sign that the labels of outsider and insider can mean different things to different people, Ellis also favors Obama and McCain.
Overall, the poll found, Clinton’s supporters overwhelmingly favor experience over change, 78 percent to 21 percent.
Obama’s supporters reflect the flip side, favoring change over experience 72 percent to 28 percent.
Backers of John Edwards, who dropped out of the race on Wednesday, were about evenly split, providing no easy clues as to whose side they’ll take now.
Among Republicans, supporters of McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who also quit the race on Wednesday, were the ones favoring experience in the poll, and backers of Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, two former governors, wanted an outsider.
This latest AP-Yahoo News survey of more than 2,000 people is part of a series of in-depth polls tracking public attitudes as the campaign unfolds. A strong belief that the country is on the wrong track has been a consistent finding since the series started in November.
The latest poll, third in the series, found that Democrats are more likely to believe in the power of the president — whatever his or her background — to change things. Republicans and independents, for their part, are much less likely to think a president can have influence over the big issues.
Presidents themselves might have their own thoughts on how much one person can do. Richard Nixon set a 1980 deadline for ending U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Bill Clinton pledged that the era of big government was over. George W. Bush promised to pay down the national debt by $2 trillion. All turned out to be pipe dreams.
Nonetheless, there still is plenty of optimism to be found, particularly among younger Americans. About two-thirds of those under age 35 believe it’s still possible to change the way Washington works. That compares with 52 percent of those who are older.
Ask 65-year-old Juanita Green, a retiree from Hartville, S.C., whether it’s possible to change Washington, and first she laughs, then she exhales a long “oooohhhhhhh,” then she answers.
“Very little chance,” she pronounces at last. “I’m hoping that they’ll wisen up one of these days and put the people first.”
It’s a hope, though, not an expectation.
Overall, supporters of Clinton and Obama are about equally likely to think it’s possible to change the way Washington works. Voters who backed Edwards, who campaigned passionately against the status quo and the influence of special interests, were least likely to think Washington can be changed.
The survey of 2,016 adults was conducted from Jan. 18-28, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.2 percentage points. Included were interviews with 943 Democrats, for whom the margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.2 points, and 740 Republicans, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.6 points.
The poll was conducted over the Internet by Knowledge Networks, based on reinterviews of a nationally representative sample of adults initially contacted in November. The respondents were first contacted using traditional telephone polling methods and followed with online interviews. People chosen for the study who had no Internet access were given it for free.
AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and Associated Press writer Christine Simmons contributed to this report.
On the Net: http://news.yahoo.com/polls.