KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Whatever their ideological differences this election year, Americans seem able to agree on one thing: the political landscape being crisscrossed by the 2008 candidates is barely recognizable as the one traveled by George W. Bush and Al Gore a mere eight years ago.
Obviously, Sept. 11 and its aftermath have changed the country in countless and irretrievable ways. But even beyond the emergence of war and national security as pre-eminent concerns, there has been a profound reordering of domestic priorities, a darkening of the country’s mood and, in the eyes of many, a fraying of America’s very sense of itself.
While not universal, that tone pervaded dozens of interviews conducted over the last week with Americans of all political stripes in 8 of the 24 states that hold primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, as well as with historians, elected officials, political strategists and poll takers. As the candidates fan out to New York and California and here to the heartland, they are confronting an electorate that is deeply unsettled about the United States’ place in the world and its ability to control its own destiny.............
Now, Americans feel a loss of autonomy, in their own lives and in the nation. Their politics are driven by the powerlessness they feel to control their financial well-being, their safety, their environment, their health and the country’s borders. They question whether each generation will continue to ascend the economic ladder. That the political system seems so impotent only deepens their frustration and their insistence on results.
As she considers this campaign, Susan C. Powell, a 47-year-old training consultant who lives in a Kansas City suburb, said that what she feels is not so much hopelessness as doom.
“I know plenty of people who are doing worse than they were,” Ms. Powell said, “and nobody’s helping them out. People’s incomes are not keeping pace with inflation. People can’t afford their homes. People in their 30s and 40s, middle-income, and they don’t have jobs they can count on or access to health care. How can we say that we’re the greatest country on earth and essentially have the walking wounded?”........