California voters are increasingly downcast about the direction of the country, but -- like their leaders in Washington -- many would rather adhere to party orthodoxy than compromise to address the current economic problems, a new poll shows.
The findings offer little guidance for President Obama, who will unveil a jobs package this week that he hopes to push through a polarized Congress. Further troubling for the president: The survey results suggest that Republicans, even in deep-blue California, are winning the rhetorical war of words over how to frame the country's economic troubles, and how to get out of them.
Although Obama has previously called for strategic government investments to stimulate the economy, only 37% of California voters said they favor such an approach. Instead, the Republican view -- that slashing government spending to restrain the deficit will better lead to prosperity -- was preferred by 49% of respondents, according to the survey sponsored by the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and The Times.
"The argument of 'We need to cut the size of government, we need to reduce the deficit' has won, even in California," said David Kanevsky, research director for American Viewpoint, a Republican firm that co-directed the bipartisan poll. "Stimulus is almost a four-letter word here."
With California unemployment mired at 12%, the electorate is clearly dissatisfied with the status quo. Nearly 3 in 4 voters say the country is on the wrong track, up sharply from the 55% who felt that way in November 2009.
"We're going to hell in a handbasket, what can I say," said Esther Morales, 68, a Republican poll respondent who lives in a retirement community in Indio. She scoffed at the term "retirement," however, pointing out that most of her neighbors still have to work odd jobs to make ends meet: "We're on the fast track to nowhere."
Dissatisfaction with the nation's trajectory topped 60% across every age range, party, region and level of education, and among women and men. But sharp disagreements remain over how the federal government should guide the country away from the recent recession. And neither side wants to give ground.
California Republicans and Democrats alike said they would prefer their leaders stick to their guns when it comes to core issues -- rejecting tax hikes for Republicans, avoiding cuts to Social Security and Medicare for Democrats -- even if concessions are needed to tame the federal deficit or lure the other side out of its ideological corner.
Republicans preferred the hard-line stance, 50% to 35%, and Democrats concurred by an even larger ratio, 57% to 32%.
"People are essentially putting their priorities above compromise," said Drew Lieberman, a pollster with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic firm that co-directed the survey.
Voters' concede-nothing mentality has been colored by the summer's protracted fight in Washington over raising the federal debt ceiling, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP strategist.
Obama had sought a "grand bargain" to raise taxes and trim entitlements in exchange for lifting the borrowing limit. Republicans in Congress refused to contemplate taxes and threatened a federal default unless deep spending cuts alone were adopted. Obama and the Democrats ultimately acquiesced.
"The lesson that Republicans learned in the fight over the debt limit is it pays not to compromise," Schnur said. "It appears the Democrats have learned exactly the same lesson."
By a nearly 2-1 ratio, Democrats in the poll now said they would rather Obama "stand up" and "fight" Republicans rather than compromise, even at the expense of solving problems. Democrats were somewhat split along ethnic lines on the issue, however. Forty-five percent of Latinos embraced the more confrontational approach, compared with 64% of whites and 84% of African Americans.
Among those who want a more aggressive posture from the president is Sacramento Democrat Jerry Montoya, 44, a theater writer and director who said he is sick of watching Democrats "ceding ground before you even fight the battle."
Montoya said he hoped Obama would roll out an ambitious, New Deal-like vision in his jobs speech before a joint session of Congress on Thursday. He wants to hear about vast new infrastructure projects of the future that will boost the economy today.
Such strident pro-government rhetoric has largely been absent from Obama's vocabulary.
"This is the one place Obama has failed," Montoya said. "He hasn't given us a simple message to move forward with."