Deep problems, high uncertainty face voters

December 31, 2007 12:22:39 PM PST
A deeply unsettled nation takes the first step this week in choosing a president to confront a world of challenges that have flummoxed the current administration and undermined Americans' confidence in government.

In Iowa's snowy cities and villages, Republican and Democratic activists on Thursday will begin winnowing the candidates who have put themselves forward as best able to end war in Iraq, avert recession at home, heal partisan wounds and combat global warming that threatens the planet.

Both parties' nominations are clearly up for grabs, in part because it's the first election in a half-century without an incumbent president or vice president running. The skill and luck needed to prevail will be even more crucial when the winner takes on the nation's knottiest problems a little over a year from now.

An unpopular but seemingly intractable war hangs over the country. Less visible is the larger struggle against an amorphous enemy - radical Islamic terrorists - whose six-year hiatus in the U.S. after the 2001 attacks has left people uneasy and unsure how much sacrifice in dollars and troops' lives is justified in the name of safety at home. Turmoil in nuclear-armed Pakistan adds to the danger and uncertainty.

The Iraq war and crippling partisanship in the House and Senate have led to unusually low approval ratings for a president of one party and a Congress controlled by the other. Many people are furious about illegal immigration, and drivers everywhere face high gasoline prices.

Even a normal bright spot - the value of U.S. homes - has turned downward. A pronounced housing slump has triggered a mortgage crisis that is ruining for many the dream of owning a home. And a 2008 recession cannot be ruled out.

Seeking to lead the nation through this troubled landscape are more than a dozen Democratic and Republican candidates who offer engaging and widely varied biographies, obvious strengths and weaknesses, and precedent-breaking options for voters.

Democrats stand a real chance of nominating the first woman or black to be president (Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama) and a more remote chance of nominating the first Hispanic (Bill Richardson). Republicans, meanwhile, might try to elect the first Mormon president (Mitt Romney), the first minister since James Garfield (Mike Huckabee) or the first president since Dwight Eisenhower who was never a governor or member of Congress (Rudy Giuliani).

Both parties have candidates hoping to be the first senator since John F. Kennedy to move directly to the White House.

For now, at least, Republicans have jettisoned their recent tradition of anointing a familiar candidate early. With the Iowa caucuses set for Thursday, and the New Hampshire primary five days later, the GOP contest's flips and surprises have astonished political pros.

The next president, to be inaugurated in just over a year, is likely to enjoy an initial embrace from a public weary of the Bush administration. But he or she will immediately face challenges, domestic and foreign, that could test the savviest politician.

"The last five years have been a humbling experience for the world's sole superpower," said Thomas E. Mann, a political scholar and longtime analyst of government at the Brookings Institution.

"Restoring our reputation around the world, dealing with religious-based terrorism without doing further harm to that reputation, managing the rise of China, coping with the existential threats of global warming and nuclear proliferation, and rectifying the imbalances in the global economy will require astute American leadership and policymaking."

While Iraq is probably the stickiest problem, on nearly every issue the new president must immediately cope with a Congress that barely functions because of bitter partisan divisions. Recent books explore the phenomenon under apt titles, including: "The Broken Branch," "Fight-Club Politics" and "The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington and Polarized America."

Democrats expect to expand their congressional majorities next November, so a new Democratic president might find some success behind a unified party effort. But President Bush failed to enact some of his biggest initiatives, such as overhauling Social Security and immigration laws, during the nearly six years that his party controlled Congress. Similarly, President Clinton failed to push a major health care bill - championed by his wife and now-candidate Hillary Clinton - through a Democratic-controlled Congress.

The next president may fare no better unless both parties scale back the partisan warfare.

"When you're dealing with things that are as fundamental as responding to the world climate, it's got to be a solution that doesn't pass on a 51-49 vote," said Bob Graham, a former Democratic governor and senator from Florida. The new president, he said, must somehow build a consensus "sort of like the policy of containment of the Soviet Union," which lasted from the Truman administration through that of the first President Bush.

Another former senator, Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson, said current lawmakers know the public has a low opinion of Congress and its logjams. But nothing has convinced them it's in their best interest to change, he said, putting them curiously at odds with those who elect them.

Most voters "cannot understand how grown people peck away with each other and make nasty remarks" when important issues are at stake, Simpson said.

To Simpson and many others, the Iraq war is the nation's most complex problem, leaving people dispirited but often at a loss on what to do. "Iraq just remains a strange thing to them," Simpson said. "They love the troops and don't like the war. In Vietnam, they hated the troops and the war."

All the Democratic candidates have vowed to start winding down the war promptly. That may appease the liberal base so vital in primary elections. But it could prove politically and militarily unwise "because, while Americans may be tired of this war, they also don't like losing major conflicts in strategically crucial parts of the world," said Michael O'Hanlon, a military scholar and writer who has traveled frequently to Iraq.

The public's dim view of Washington is especially striking given that many people feel relatively happy with their personal lives. A recent nationwide poll by AP-Yahoo found that nearly three times more people feel the country is on the wrong track than on the right track. But by even larger margins, people say they are happy with "life in general."

Helen Fronefield, a Republican who votes in Alaska and spends her winters in Arizona, is among them.

"It seems like we pay taxes and I'm not sure we're getting an honest return," said Fronefield, 65, a retired Air Force officer.

She's looking for a candidate who "is not inbred in the system, and can do more than talk about problems, take some action," she said.

Fronefield said Clinton, a senator from New York, "would be an interesting option." She also is considering Sens. Obama, D-Ill., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

Terry Weidenhammer of West Chester, Pa., like many people, said her priorities are cracking down on illegal immigration and ending the Iraq war. Illegal immigrants enjoy rights they haven't earned, she said, and elected officials "are doing nothing to keep them out."

Weidenhammer, 82, whose son and late husband were career military officers, is of two minds about Iraq.

"I don't like to see our men over there," she said. "But until we can be certain that the Iraqi forces are going to be sufficiently trained, I wouldn't like to see our boys come home and then see a flare-up" in the region. Pakistan especially worries her.

Weidenhammer wants to support a Republican, but says she is troubled by the way some have changed their views. "Until there is one who is sticking to his positions," she said, "I won't vote."

For all the nation's problems, many voters and professional politicians see signs of hope.

"I'm encouraged by the fact that there are a number of highly qualified persons running for president," said Florida's Graham, who once sought the office himself. The bad news, he said, is "the new president will spend the first year or two just cleaning up the mess."

Even if the nation is uncertain and unsettled on who can best tackle the job, the caucuses and primaries won't wait. The voting starts Thursday.