• In the middle is a group that supports Obama's plan but without much enthusiasm. Most say the government needs to take action to fix the country's economic problems; they also want government's reach cut back when the crisis is over.
These reluctant supporters, 15% of respondents, make up the most bipartisan group. A majority are Democrats but nearly four in 10 are Republicans. They are evenly divided between men and women, and the group reflects the national average in income and education.
Pedro Navarro, 21, lives in Muskegon, which has the highest unemployment rate of anywhere in hard-hit Michigan. He is working in a factory that makes truck parts but has seen friends and family members lose their jobs. As for the rescue plan for Detroit, "I believe it's warranted to keep the auto industry up on its feet. Otherwise, the industry will pretty much go under."
Even so, he worries about the government wasting money, and he says it "should step back a little bit" when businesses regain their footing.
• The final group is conflicted and uncertain. They both approve of the job Obama is doing and oppose most of the initiatives he has proposed. This group, 27% of respondents, has the lowest average income and education levels of the four groups as well as the largest proportion of women.
"I'm not sitting where I can see all the ins-and-outs," says Edna Baatile, 60, of Tulsa, a former human resources manager for American Airlines. "I guess I just have to keep praying every day for the president and his advisers that they make the right decisions, because nobody knows."
The USA TODAY/Gallup Poll of 1,007 adults, which has a margin of error of +/—3 percentage points, was taken March 27-29 by land line and cellphone.
A new progressive era?
Obama's risk and his opportunity come down to this: If the economy doesn't improve, the qualms of many Americans about big government and deficit spending could be reinforced, undercutting confidence in his leadershipdoes and programs and boosting the Republicans who have opposed him. If his actions succeed, some analysts say he could become the sort of transformational leader that Reagan was, putting the country on a different political course for a generation.
Because of the nation's economic woes and its shifting demographics, they argue the United States is poised for a new progressive era, akin to periods of government activism during the tenures of Theodore Roosevelt at the turn of the 20th century and Franklin Roosevelt during the Depression and World War II.
"There's always latent support for limited government, but given the range of the problems we have now, people are very open to a strong role for government" says John Halpin, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded by former aides to President Clinton. Halpin last month co-authored a report on trends in Americans' political ideology.
What's more, growing groups in the population — the Millennial Generation of those under 30 and Hispanics — are among those traditionally most comfortable with an activist government. In the USA TODAY survey, 18- to 29-year-olds backed a large government response to the financial crisis by nearly 2-to-1. Those 50 and older divided about evenly.
Kristen Chierus, 26, of North Attleborough, Mass., is focused on the here and now.