Fewer Health Care Complaints

Americans were marginally more satisfied with “the way things are going in the country today” than six months ago, 28% compared to 23%. The percentage of satisfied respondents is the highest since January 1993, amid the inauguration of the new president. In early March 1996 the Gallup poll found an even greater rise in general satisfaction (41%), with a small fall back from that level (to 36%) in mid-month. The malaise that has marked the mood of the country for a decade may be finally bottoming out. Nonetheless, the latest Pew poll also finds that anxiety about future personal financial conditions continues to rise significantly among Americans.

The increased level of satisfaction coincides with reduced concern over health care. Only 10% of dissatisfied respondents said health care (or its lack) was the main reason for their dissat
isfaction now, half of the 21% who complained about it in October 1995 at a time when limits on Medicare and other similar programs were being debated in Congress. Democrats and those 65 years old and older showed the greatest decrease in concern on this issue (from 30% to 14%, and from 26% to 8%, respectively). The only significant rise among reasons for dissatisfaction was economic conditions (25%, up from 21%), which was wholly due to complaints about lack of jobs (12%, up from 8% in October 1995). Among other important causes for disaffection were crime (cited by 18%), the political system (16%), and the moral crisis in the country (12%).

Men were more satisfied than women (32% vs. 25%) with the overall conditions in the country, whites more than blacks (29% vs. 22%), and younger people, the college educated, and the wealthier groups in society more than the older, less educated and poorer Americans. Democrats were much more satisfied than Republicans or Independents (35% vs. 25% each, respectively), and the Midwest much more than other regions (36% vs. 25% or 26% for the three other regions).

Among the dissatisfied, women were more likely than men to complain about education, health care, welfare and crime, while men more often cited the Washington political system, the budget deficit and taxes. Blacks were much more likely than whites to complain about the economy overall (33% vs. 23%), as well as about jobs (20% vs. 10%). Also noteworthy was that respondents 65 years old and older were significantly less likely to complain about economic factors than younger Americans (14% vs. 27%).

A Cloudy Future

But belying the small rise in satisfaction about the general state of the nation, the level of anxiety among Americans continues to rise on four personal financial indicators and quite rapidly on three of the four. Two out of three respondents (67%) said they are “very concerned” about their children not having good job opportunities, up from 57% in October 1995 and from 51% in March 1994. Similarly, 59% were “very concerned” about not having enough money for retirement, up from 48% six months ago and from 34% in May 1988. And 47% were “very concerned” about losing their jobs or taking a pay cut, up from 34% six months ago and 18% in May 1988 before corporate “downsizing” became a household word. Finally, a very large majority (68%) remains “very concerned” about being unable to afford necessary health care when a family member becomes ill, about the same as the 66% six months ago but up from 50% in March 1994.

On each of these issues, more women were found in the “very concerned” category than men; more blacks and hispanics than whites; the poor and less educated more than the wealthier and better schooled; Democrats and Independents more than Republicans; and likely Clinton voters and the Undecided more than Dole voters.

Blame It On Congress

The public mainly faults Congress for its dissatisfaction. One-in-three (35%) held it most responsible, the same level as six months earlier. Democrats blamed the GOP-controlled Congress more than Republicans (42% vs. 29%) with Independents in between (34%). Somewhat more blame is being laid on President Clinton than previously, 11%, up from 7% in October 1995.

Despite widespread criticism of corporate “downsizing,” only 6% of Americans blamed business corporations for their dissatisfaction, and another 3% blamed Wall Street banks and investment companies. In fact, even among respondents who cited the economy for their discontent, only about one-in-five blamed corporations (10%) or Wall Street (9%). In comparison, 31% of those distressed by the economy blamed Congress.

Primary Election Qualms

Following one of the most compressed series of early presidential primary contests, most Americans (58%) said the current primary system was not a good way to determine the best qualified nominees of political parties. This is essentially the same level as disapproved of the process four years earlier (59% in March 1992). Somewhat more respondents approved of the primaries now than four years ago, 35% vs. 31%. Public opinion on the value of primaries has been up and down over the years. A 1988 Gallup poll found 48% believing that the primary system was a good way to choose nominees, while a 1980 Newsweek poll found only 40% approving the method.

In the current survey, the most focused reason for disapproving of the primary process was money: 18% complained that “the most money gets elected” or “only those with money get involved.” But candidate quality, expressed in a variety of phrases, was cited by 27%; among the phrases were “none qualified,” “the best people don’t run,” “too few choices,” and “they make false promises.” Another 18% cited lack of information on issues, positions, even facts. A fourth topic of complaint was negative campaigning and mud-slinging, mentioned by 12%. Democrats and Independents were more concerned with negative campaigning, Independents were more concerned with money matters, and all three political groupings were concerned equally about candidate quality and information/issues. Demographically, young people were likely to be more satisfied with the process, as were Republicans compared to Democrats and Independents (41% vs. 35% and 30%, respectively).

But More Follow Election

Despite complaints about the primary system, however, the number of Americans who followed news about the Republican presidential candidates more than doubled compared to earlier in this election cycle as well as four years ago. Fully 67% of respondents said they followed the GOP hopefuls closely (26% “very closely” and another 41% “fairly closely”); in comparison, these figures were 10% and 34% , respectively, in January 1996, and 11% and 25%, respectively, in January 1992. News of these candidates was the most followed story of the period, in fact, with Republicans understandably more tuned in than Democrats or Independents (38% followed “very closely” vs. 22% and 19%, respectively).

This is the second successive measure of heightened interest in the political process this year. A Pew Research Center survey found that Americans were more attentive to the New Hampshire primary campaign in February than they were four years earlier. A total of 57% respondents said they followed the contest closely (22% very closely, 35% fairly closely), compared to 50% in February 1992 (19% and 31%, respectively).

In the current survey, the story next highest in attentiveness was the continuing debate in Washington about the federal budget, 24%, down from 32% two months ago but still higher than last September (20%) and August (18%). News about investigations and lawsuits against the tobacco industry was followed very closely by 20%.

Interest In Bosnia Wanes

Several foreign affairs stories also drew significant audiences. The situation in Bosnia was followed very closely by 18% of respondents, half the level of attentiveness of 37% just two months earlier when American troops were spending their first Christmas in the Balkans. Interest in this story appears to have returned to levels found before deployment of U.S. forces (15% in September 1995, 16% in August 1995). Even young men 18-29 years old who might identify with the troops and college educated Americans who traditionally follow foreign news more closely were not significantly more interested in Bosnia (20% and 19%, respectively) than the overall public.

Among the other international news, the potential for military conflict between China and Taiwan was followed very closely by 19%, and the terrorist bombings in Israel were followed very closely by 18%. Other domestic stories attracting attention were the conviction of the Menendez brothers for murdering their parents (14% followed very closely) and news about the Whitewater investigation (11%).

More of the Public’s Sound Bites

Asked what one word best describes Hillary Rodham Clinton, Americans mixed mildly positive with strongly negative answers. Only 14% of respondents were at a loss for words about her, fewer than the 20% who could not find a word for President Clinton in a similar Pew exercise conducted a month ago. For Ross Perot, the primary emphasis was on his substantial net worth and quixotic personality. Only 15% failed to contribute a word about the billionaire.

            HILLARY CLINTON "Top 20"            ROSS PEROT "Top 20"

                        Frequency*                     Frequency*

      1.  Intelligent         34            1.  Rich         39

      2.  Smart               26            2.  Crazy        18

      3.  "Rhymes with rich"  22            3.  Idiot        18

      4.  Good                21            4.  Egotistical  15

      5.  Bossy               21            5.  Nuts         11

      6.  Aggressive          20            6.  Money        10

      7.  Domineering         18            7.  Arrogant     10

      8.  O.K.                17            8.  Intelligent   9

      9.  Strong              16            9.  Independent   9

     10.  Nice                13           10.  Short         8

     11.  Liar                13           11.  O.K.          8

     12.  Powerful            11           12.  Wealthy       8

     13.  Distrustful         10           13.  Annoying      8

     14.  Dishonest            9           14.  Smart         8

     15.  Pushy                9           15.  Funny         7

     16.  Snob                 8           16.  Goofy         7

     17.  Ambitious            7           17.  Outspoken     6

     18.  Fair                 7           18.  Interesting   6

     19.  Great                7           19.  Radical       6

     20.  Independent          6           20.  Millionaire   5

*  This table shows the number of respondents out of 750 who

    offered each response; the numbers are not percentages.