It is supposed to be one of the most important speeches an American president makes to his countrymen. But only if they are in a mood to hear it.
Pessimistic voters said Tuesday night that there was practically nothing President Clinton could have said in his State of the Union address that would ease their profound feelings of despair, frustration and powerlessness over the myriad of problems afflicting the nation.
“I feel there is nothing that can be done about anything,” said Carmen Rios, 41, a cosmetology instructor at Chicago’s Truman College who said she planned to spend the evening grading papers instead of watching Clinton’s speech. “Even if he has good intentions, it’s not going to bring
Rios’ attitude appeared typical of many voters across the political and economic spectrum questioned Tuesday about the president’s address.
In the key primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire, many indicated that they are tired of promises, partisan politics and the bitter infighting surrounding political imbroglios such as the Whitewater affair.
“This is not a State of the Union message, it’s a formal announcement of his agenda to run for re-election,” scoffed John Forst, 38, a suburban Des Moines travel-agency manager, as he watched the speech at home with his family. “This is a campaign speech, not an assessment of where we’re at. It’s the same thing all these Republicans are saying in New Hampshire and Iowa.”
Forst, a supporter of Republican presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander, said he agreed “wholeheartedly” with the uplifting parts of the president’s message.
“He’s right on point with everything I want for my family,” Forst said. “But show me the execution.”
Clinton said it himself last year: Voters are in a funk. They feel helpless as they behold a gridlocked political system that seems incapable of grappling with concerns such as crime, education and a balanced budget.
“I’d like to go to the Museum of Modern Art in New York,” lamented Mike O’Donnell, a 71-year-old retired machinist questioned earlier in the day in Manchester, N.H. “I heard they have standing-room-only because of an impressionists’ show. But I’m scared to death to go to New York.”
Many voters said they yearned to hear the president speak reassuringly about the economy.
At Pappy’s Pizza in Manchester, the Tuesday breakfast crowd sat around red formica tables and talked about the new uncertain state of the national layoffs by huge employers, such as AT&T;, that once stood for stability, and an economy that does not present any clear path to good jobs.
“There are jobs, but they don’t pay well. It’s all $7 an hour and no benefits,” said Jeff Michelsen, 44, who said he was once a well-paid worker at a defense contractor but is now without a job.
“People at the top keep making all the money,” Michelsen said. “The stock market goes up and the jobs go down.”
A number of those interviewed decried the endless brinksmanship over political issues. First there was one federal shutdown, then another. And now there is the possibility the U.S. Treasury will be unable to pay its debts.
“I know people who’ve gotten in over their head. It’s pretty easy to do,” said Jay Sartell, a 25-year-old police officer from Candia, N.H. “That’s what the United States government is doing right now: It’s a credit-card society.”
In Iowa, where voters will soon weigh in with the first verdicts on the Republican presidential candidates during their Feb. 12 caucuses, people sounded similarly disillusioned.
“We should have had a budget agreement months ago,” said Loren Owens, a 59-year-old pensioner who said he would prefer to work if he could only find a good job. “The Republicans know what the country needs, and so do the Democrats. Why can’t they get together on it?”
Though their moods were similar, voters in Chicago and the two key primary states were not all concerned about the same political issues. Depending on their work, backgrounds and family situations, they listed everything from health care and public morality to global warming and shelter for the homeless as key issues Clinton should be addressing.
To be sure, there were optimists among those questioned about the state of the union.
“I think everything’s going real well,” said Paul Miller, 38, a golf course architect from Woodbury, Minn. “Business-wise, for my company and from what I can tell from the general climate, things are good and there’s money out there.
“Personally, I don’t sense the ‘middle-class squeeze.’ The things I want, I can have.”
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