Menu
Share
Share this story
Close X
 
Switch to Desktop Site

What America thinks

Americans are in a volatile, hard-to-pin-down, and unpredictable mood as they follow the zigzag course of the presidential primaries, setting the stage for the selection next November of a president for the '80s. Will it be another term for Jimmy Carter, or will the turbulence in the land mean he's a one-term man?

In his State of the Union address in January Mr. Carter spoke of a "new spirit of unity and resolve" in America. "We move into the 1980s with confidence and hope -- and a bright vision of the America we want," he said. However, only six months earlier, on July 15, Mr. Carter had come down from Camp David in the Maryland mountains, after a period of seclusion, with a somber warning to the public about a "fundamental threat to American democracy . . . a crisis of confidence . . . that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will."

About these ads

Has the national mood undergone a transformation as dramatic as the President's words would seem to indicate? Did the takeover of the US Embassy in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan so arouse the American public that the "malaise" and uncertainty that the President saw eating away at "the very fabric of our society" suddenly vanished? Or was his gloomy outlook last summer more a reflection of Mr. Carter's low rating in the polls and the widespread feeling at the time that he would be a one-term president? And is his recent optimism motivated more by politics than realities?

The Monitor put these questions to the men and women who spend much of their time trying to keep track of what Americans are thinking -- the country's public-opinion pollsters. Many pollsters say they thought all along that "crisis" was too strong a term for the doubts and uncertainties about the future that Americans were harboring last summer -- doubts that every pollster contacted by the Monitor says the public continues to express.

There is no question but that a majority of people remain troubled about inflation and recession, about the increased likelihood of war, and about the ineffectiveness of government and its apparent inability to solve these vexing problems. Moreover, opinion samplings disclose a continuing lack of public confidence in elected officials, big business, the news media, and public institutions in general.

Nevertheless, most pollsters say yes, there have been some startling changes in American attitudes in recent months.

"Clearly the country is in a hawkish mood," a pollster with NBC News says, noting that recent polls have shown 58 percent of the public in favor of increased defense spending, even if it means more inflation; 78 percent supporting a resumption of registration for the military draft; and 62 percent of people responding to an NBC-Associated Press poll in January indicationg they would like to see a return of the draft itself.

Should military spending be increased? February 1980 64% Increased 6% Decreased 23% Kept the same 7% No opinion

How about domestic spending programs? 25% Increased 24% Decreased 38% Kept the same 13% No opinion Source: CBS/New York Times Poll

About these ads

Some pollsters interpret this resurgence of hawkishness as marking the end of America's post-Vietnam reluctance to get involved abroad. Others, however, say the United States was already emerging from the Vietnam era "isolationism" before the hostage-taking in Iran. and there was already increasing support for a harder anti-Soviet stance before the Middle East eruptions, they say. Afghanistan and Iran only accelerated the drive, accoding to these pollsters.

The "fear of war," as measured in percentage terms, has tripled in the past two years, according to one recent nationwide poll. In 1978, the percentage of respondents who thought it likely that the US would be involved in war within three years ranged from 12 percent to 20 percent; in 1979 the figure rose to 30 percent; and by January of this year 40 percent of the public saw war as likely.

Some pollsters and political scientists attribute the current hawkishness to sheer anger and frustration, and a sense of powerlessness on domestic issues as well. One opinion sampler likens the mood of the country to that of the fictional TV newsman in the movie "Network," standing at his window and shouting to the world, "I'm not going to take it anymore."

David Gergen, managing editor of Public Opinion magazine, calls it a "we're going to show you" attitude.

Robert Teeter, however, a Michigan-based pollster for George Bush and other Republican candidates, sees the American people as "apprehensive, fearful, and frustrated," rather than angry. "People's lives are being affected by inflation and interest rates. They feel their schools are worse. You get the feeling that they have gone through a really rough period and they're desperate for it to be over. This country is just looking for an 'upper' -- for something good to happen," Mr. Teeter says.

One positive outgrowth of the crises in the Middle East has been what Mr. Gergen calls the "marvelously uplifting" expressions of national loyalty and patriotism, reflected, he points out, not only in survey responses but in the words of country-music songs and in the chants of Winter Olympics spectators at Lake Placid, N.Y.

Another pollster, George Gallup Jr., notes, too, a significant upturn in the number of Americans who, when questioned about their attitudes toward their country, give the US a high rating. In January, 81 percent of the Americans contacted by the Gallup organization had a "highly favorable" opinion of the US, up from 75 percent last September.

As his successes in the early presidential primaries bear out, the public has rallied behind President Carter and his handling of the Iranian crisis in particular. Although there have been signs of some weakening in that support as the Iranian hostage standoff has dragged on, Mr. Carter has clearly benefited politically from the desire of Americans to close ranks in the face of threats from abroad.

Mr. Carter's image as an effective leader has improved markedly. But most pollsters point out that the President continues to get low ratings on his apparent inability to solve the nation's energy and economic problems.

Does Carter have strong leadership qualities? 56% Yes 38% No 6% Don't know Source: CBS/New York Times Poll

Nicholas Tortorello, senior partner of Dresner, Morris & Tortorello Research, a New York-based polling organization, calls the support for Mr. Carter "soft . . . very soft," and adds: "People still have grave doubts about Carter's capacity to lead. Democrats seem to be rejecting [Sen. Edward] Kennedy more than they are supporting Carter. One thing we're starting to pick up is that some people are concerned that the race for the Democratic nomination not be over too quickly. I wouldn't be surprised to see a sympathetic backlash for Kennedy at some point."

Claibourne Darden, a pollster in Atlanta, sees the Middle East as an "artifical crutch under Carter which will leave when the problem is solved or when the crutch deteriorates."

Most pollsters contacted by the Monitor voice sentiments similar to those of Arthur Miller, a political scientist at the University of Michigan, who thinks the Middle East crises have not eliminated Mr. Carter's "leadership problem." "His overall performance hasn't gone up," Dr. Miller explains. "His current popularity rating is primarily a statement to the rest of the world. The big question is how long can this [Iran situation] go on before the public gets critical. How long before people start saying, 'Here's one more problem government can't cope with.'"

In general, pollsters continue to get mixed responses on Mr. carter. On the one hand, they are finding strong support for the President's Iran and Afghanistan policies. Yet many of those same pessimistic attitudes that concerned President Carter last summer are still in evidence. Opinion samplings still show widespread uncertainty and lack of confidence is how well off the nation will be in the future.

"We see little evidence of new evidence in institutions or leaders," says Mr. Gergen. "Nor are we seeing much improvement in the performance of those institutions and leaders to generate confidence, either."

Confidence in institutions Percentage with 'great deal of confidence' in . . . Feb. Jan. 1966 1979 1980 . . . the military 62% 29% 33% TV news 25% 37% 31% Press 29% 28% 22% Major companies 55% 18% 19% White House 41% 15% 18% Congress 42% 18% 11% Source: Harris Poll

Yet Mr. Gergen sees the heavy voter turnouts in the early presidential primaries as an indication that "people are wanting to believe in their country; they want it to do better."

Some pollsters think the public would readily latch on to any strong leader with a definite program for solving the nations difficult inflation and energy problems. But, as Mr. gallup puts it, "On many issues the candidates aren't very far apart." In other words, voters don't see much difference between the candidates and what they are saying.

Of growing concern to some pollsters is the increasing public perception that perhaps no onem can solve the country's problems. People seem to be lowering their expectations of what any president can accomplish. For instance, there seems to be a growing public resignation that inflation will go on and on, regardless of which candidate is eleted -- an attitude that only makes the problem worse by encouraging people to "buy now" before prices go up again.

An NBC-Associated Press poll in January found that 61 percent of the respondents felt no president can control inflation.

The basic problem, as pollster Tortorello sees it, is that "what the people really want and what the candidates are saying are as different as day and night. Our polls show people want wage and price controls -- but controls that are equitable and that will not allow business to inflate costs once they're lifted. On energy, people say they'll go along with gasoline rationing if it is equitable. But they don't think Congress or the president has the ability to do it properly."

Government wage and price controls . . . 48% Favor 41% Oppose 11% No opinion Source; New York Times

On such complex topics as inflation and gasoline rationing, however, Claibourne Darden cautions that survey respondents tend to be particularly susceptible to "simplistic solutions" and that "if there was a less painful way to solve inflation without controls, they'd opt for it."

At the heart of the public's uncertainty, as Mr. Tortorello and most other pollsters see it, is a continuing lack of public confidence in government to provide the kind of leadership and solutions the nation needs.

Yet there remains a curious gap between how people view their own personal financial situations and the nation's as a whole, between how they view their own neighborhood schools and schools in general, between how they rate their own congressman and congressmen in general. Invariably, they give higher marks to the elected officials they know personally than they do to politicians in general. The same holds true for their local schools in comparison with their overall rating of the nation's education system.

And, despite their pessimism about the direction of the national economy, most people remain fairly optimistic about what the future holds in store economically for their own families. Most parents, for instance, say they expect their children to be better off financially than they are.

Pollsters also tend to agree with Dr. Greg Martire, senior research associate with Yankelovich, Skelly & White, that despite social pressures that would seem to undermine such attitudes, "traditional family and religious values remain strong and play as important a role in American life as they ever have."

Although families have been buffeted by currents such as women's liberation and emphasis on more open sexuality, pollsters find continuing stability among families, with considerable support for marriage as an instution.

A Washington Post poll in December, for instance, found that 73 percent of the respondents considered themselves "very religious" or "somewhat religious" and 31 percent thought that religion is more important to them than it was to their parents. Likewise, the Post poll found that 43 percent of the people surveyed said that the men in their families are taking more responsibility for household work, an indication of the impact of feminism on family routines. Yet , the pollsters also found that 74 percent said their families still eat dinner together nearly every day of the week.

In general, Americans appear to be upset with many of the things government is doing. AS Dr. Miller puts it, "They're upset with the way Congress, the courts, and other institutions function -- and yet they are proud of their country. They're not saying they want a different formm of government. They just want the government they have to work better."


Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.