Americans will be casting their votes for the next president Nov 6. / John Kuczala / USA WEEKEND
Winning the election Tuesday is just the first step.
After a hard-fought and sometimes bitter campaign, the man elected president this week will face a crush of priorities from millions of Americans, some of whom voted for him and others who didn’t.
What do we want the new president to do?
A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll this fall asked 1,000 Americans how they would answer that open-ended question. By far the two most frequent responses: Create jobs and improve the economy. These answers and others — on concerns about education, health care and more — reflect the daily struggle that continues on many fronts as the nation recovers from the Great Recession.
There were other ideas as well, including a desire for bipartisanship and a yearning for world peace. “Be honest,” a fair number said. (Some put it another way: “Don’t lie.”) “Put the American people first always,” said one. Another offered: “I would love for him to come and visit my house and talk to me.”
Whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins this week, here are views from across the country about what he should do after being sworn in on the steps of the Capitol in January.
Bring our country together
Karen Camper and Jeremy Faison seem unlikely allies.
She is a liberal Democrat from Memphis; he is a conservative Republican from Cosby, in the Great Smoky Mountains. The two members of the Tennessee State Assembly worked across party lines this year to pass legislation that could have been controversial: allowing one-time, non-violent felons to expunge their criminal records.
Both knew constituents who had faced problems finding jobs and getting on with their lives even after repaying their debts to society. Faison mentions a man convicted of making moonshine 34 years ago. “It’s haunted him and followed him every day of his life,” he says.
Last year, they agreed to work together to enlist co-sponsors, meet with law enforcement groups and encourage party leaders not to make it a campaign issue. “We agreed up front that I would tell my caucus, none of that,” Camper says. “He agreed to do the same with his caucus.” In April, the law passed the legislature by a wide margin and was signed into law by Gov. Bill Haslam.
Camper and Faison see lessons from their working alliance for the new president in taking steps to breach the partisan divide that often polarizes Washington.
“At some point, we’ve got to say it’s about the citizens,” says Camper, 54, a retired Army officer. Faison, 36, the owner of a pest-control company, agrees. “There is an enormous amount of suspicion that comes with politics on either side,” he says. “If we could get past that, we would be light years past where we are now.”
Honor our veterans
Mervin Roxas worries about the flood of veterans returning to the United States as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. Studies sponsored by the Veterans Administration and Pentagon estimate that 600,000 may be struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder PTSD and depression and another 40,000 with traumatic brain injuries. More than 1,000 have had limbs amputated.
That happened to Marine Cpl. Roxas when he was on patrol in 2004 during his second deployment to Iraq. “I was on top of the vehicle manning the machine gun when an IED exploded,” he says. The force killed three of his comrades and ripped off his left arm.
He had enlisted in the Marines soon after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, at age 19. Now his lifetime goal of becoming a police officer seemed impossible. After 11 months in the hospital, the transition to civilian life proved difficult. “I was angry about the situation, confused, and I guess kind of depressed as well,” he says. I was very lucky to find the right direction.”
He hopes the next president will help provide support and structure for returning veterans, with better collaboration between the government and nonprofit sectors and other outside programs.
Roxas, now 29, graduated from California State University at Fullerton last year and got married. He has landed a job he loves with an Easter Seals program serving adults with intellectual disabilities. “No regrets, absolutely not,” he says. “I would do it all again.”
Get our economic fundamentals back on track
Mike Bucci sees this as a historic moment when the U.S. will recover its footing or stumble toward calamity.
He has learned something about calamity, he says. Bucci, 44, owns a company called K & M of VACQ? – named for the initials of his two young children -- that helps inventors bring new products to market. In 2009, after the financial collapse, he went for six months without drawing a paycheck and had to lay off the firm’s three employees. He lives in Glen Allen, Va., just outside Richmond.
“Scary, sad, terrifying,” he recalls. “Had it been another six months like that, I would have been out of business.” He slashed spending at work and home, started working on a how-to book for inventors titled Start Living the American Dream and held on. Now business has begun to return, albeit slowly, and he’s put one employee back on the payroll.
He wants the new president to tackle fiscal challenges that have defied easy solution, including the federal deficit and the spiraling costs of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare. “We are living in a time where all the promises that have been made by politicians for decades are now catching up with us,” he says. “I hope our leadership in Washington, D.C., is willing to meaningfully address that.”
Help the next generation get started
Molly Shack thought she was doing everything right to avoid precisely the situation in which she now finds herself.
When she graduated from high school, she decided against attending art school in New York and Chicago. “I didn’t want to be $150,000 in debt and with a piece of paper” that would be of limited help in landing a job, she says. She stayed home in Columbus to attend Ohio State University, majoring in international studies and Spanish. She applied for Pell grants, worked part-time at a bar and took a work-study post as a secretary in a museum.
Even so, she graduated this spring in a tough job market carrying $20,000 in debt. The six-month grace period to begin repaying her student loans is expiring, and her job at a community organization ends next month.
Shack, 22, hopes the next president will move to relieve the debt burden many college students and recent graduates face. A Pew Research Center study this fall found nearly one in five U.S. households have outstanding student debt, more than double the number two decades ago.
One day, Shack would like to be work on academic, scientific and artistic exchanges with other countries, but on hold are her ambitions to attend graduate school. “I really hope I don’t have to go back to working in a bar,” she says. “Unfortunately, that’s always been my Plan B.”
Keep the American dream alive
Roxana Gutierrez can’t vote in this election, but she is determined to vote in the next one. She is studying to take the citizenship test in February, 11 years after she and her husband immigrated to the United States from Cochabamba, Bolivia.
“Everybody talked about this country, the opportunity for all people to better their lives,” she recalls. “I came here with my empty hands,” not knowing how to speak English and for a time leaving her two young sons in Bolivia with relatives. She went to work cleaning houses in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Since then, her life has been the classic American dream, she says. She established the Smart Solution Cleaning Service, a small business that now employs six other housecleaners. Her older son plans to attend college after he graduates from high school next spring.
But Gutierrez, 44, of Fairfax, Va., worries the American dream is imperiled, especially by economic insecurities that have prompted some of her friends to move back to their native countries. In a poll this fall sponsored by the Public Religion Research Institute, more than four in 10 Americans said the American dream – that is, if you work hard, you’ll get ahead – once was true but no longer applies.
Gutierrez hopes the new president will be able to revive the sense of economic opportunity and possibility that drew her and others to the United States. “I worry, because if we don’t care for this country, everybody could lose everything,” she says. “So I think we need to work together – not just the president – to care for this country.”
Susan Page is the Washington Bureau chief for USA TODAY.