Today's deadline for filing tax returns has provided a peg for Republicans complaining about the tax burdens that they say Obama's programs will create. Tax Day "tea party" protests are scheduled across the country.
White House advisers describe the president's program as pragmatic, not ideological. They say he has paired costly proposals — the $787 billion stimulus package, $275 billion in housing aid, up to $1 trillion in the bank rescue plan — with a commitment to reduce the deficit later.
"This is not where we want to be," Emanuel says. "Unfortunately, this stuff was mismanaged (to a point) where the only people who can resolve these problems is the government. We don't relish doing it."
Meanwhile, anxious Americans debate what course is right.
"The bailouts are absolutely the wrong way to go," says Stanley Tessier, 62, who retired to Port St. Lucie, Fla.,from Concord, N.H. "The capitalist way is if a business isn't successful it would fail, and that's the only way any business can work. If you keep rewarding people who don't produce, you have an economy that isn't going to get any better."
Alice Allen, caught in the economy's downward spiral, couldn't disagree more. After losing her home in Ohio to foreclosure, she moved in with a cousin in Richmond, Va. She had retired from an office job but at 62 has started working part time in a school kitchen to make ends meet.
The government's actions amount to a course correction after years of giving big corporations and wealthy folks too much sway, she says. "People on Social Security, fixed incomes —we're the ones that are really struggling and have worked all our lives and really need some help."
How Americans see it
A USA TODAY analysis of the survey finds demographic divisions when it comes to what the federal government should do.
• The largest group, 37% of respondents, is comfortable with big government and solidly behind Obama. Nine of 10 approve of the job the president is doing and 85% endorse the government's expanded role to deal with the financial crisis. Nearly all of them see big business as a more foreboding threat to the country than Big Government.
This group is mostly Democratic and includes the most liberals. It has more women than men and is slightly younger and better educated than the sample as a whole.
"I don't worry about Big Government," says Lillie Thomas, 74, a retired hotel housekeeping supervisor in Las Vegas. "We should try to help people get back to work and get better health care."
• At the other end of the spectrum is a smaller group that is solidly against the expansion of government and Obama's approach. Even the plan to help homeowners avoid foreclosure, supported by at least three of four people in every other group, is backed by just 8%.
Members of this group, which includes 21% of respondents, tend to be white and male with education and income levels above the average. They are overwhelmingly Republican and mostly conservative.
Letting the market work — even if that means allowing automakers such as GM and Chrysler to fail — would be better than giving the government a say in the companies' leadership and direction, says John Cronkwright, 40, a civil engineer from Liverpool, N.Y. "If we start telling these companies, 'You've got to make this product and that product,' that's not really the American way of free enterprise," he says. "That's more toward socialism."