Not many people here threw their hats in the air after President Bush announced his new economic agenda with a speech in nearby Detroit last Thursday. Many didn't even notice; others wondered what took him so long.
"I find it very irritating the last few weeks that he's found all this money and he's coming up with all these ideas he hasn't had the last four years," said Sheryl Stevens, a medical librarian as she sat outside the town's gleaming new library here last weekend. "I mean, where has he been all these years?"
Matthew Heffner, who works in a photographic plant, was just as dubious. "Basically, he's been looking to be the world leader, not the American leader," Heffner said while standing a few feet from a park where Bush held a campaign rally in late August. "He's kind of waited four years to realize he's got to do something."
If there was any good news for Bush in conversations with nearly 50 voters in three politically pivotal suburbs of Detroit last weekend, it is that cynicism about his motives and unhappiness with the nation's direction is nearly matched by skepticism about his challenger, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
Two colliding forces are shaping the political environment in this showdown state: an overwhelming urge for change rooted in economic anxiety--and widespread uncertainty about whether Clinton can be trusted to deliver the change he promises. Bush's best weapon is doubt about Clinton; Clinton's is the unhappiness with Bush.
For Steve Wallace, a Bush supporter in 1988 who's gone back to college after working for several years as a machinist, any of Clinton's deficiencies are almost irrelevant. "It's not that I like Clinton--he's basically a pot-smoking, draft-dodging, womanizer," he said, stepping out of a pickup outside the library. "But it's time for a change."
A few feet away, Linda Dickson, an audiologist from nearby Dearborn, offers roughly the same assessment of both candidates--and flips the result. "It's not that I'm really excited by anything Bush has done," she said. "But I have this basic distrust of Clinton. All of these things keep coming up, like the draft."
Both Clinton and Bush rank Michigan, with its 18 electoral votes, among the handful of states that could decide the election. Racial tension, a strong anti-tax sentiment and a well-organized anti-abortion movement make the state an uphill climb for Democrats--the Republicans have won here in five consecutive presidential elections. Four years ago, Bush carried Michigan by a decisive margin, 54% to 46%.
To turn that around, both sides agree on the task facing Clinton. He needs to increase black turnout in Detroit and, even more important, cut into Bush's margins in the city's mostly white suburbs. Four years ago, Bush carried Macomb County--an almost all-white Detroit suburb synonymous with middle-class disaffection from the Democratic Party over issues of race and values--by almost 63,000 votes; he won the portions of Wayne County south and west of the city by nearly 60,000 votes.
Interviews last weekend in Macomb and Wayne counties suggest that economic distress has created a much more competitive situation. In these areas where Bush won handily four years ago, opinions appear closely divided between Bush and Clinton. If that division holds up until Election Day, it would give Clinton a strong chance of carrying the state; most analysts here now give him a slight edge.
But in these bellwether communities, more turns in the road to November seem likely. Many voters appear deeply ambivalent about their expressed choice--and several were truly undecided, torn between eagerness for change and fear of it.
Those conflicting emotions were vivid last Saturday at the homecoming parade in Warren, a middle-class city of 145,000 just north of Detroit in Macomb County, whose economy revs and stalls with the auto industry. Four years ago, Bush carried more than 56% of the vote here--and the area's solidifying conservatism is boosting him again.
Several of those lining the parade route on a brilliant autumn morning--watching politicians, marching bands and the Junior Miss Warren file down the street with a buoyant clamor--were receptive to Bush's argument that an obdurate Congress has tied his hands. "I think he's got a good program," said Dallas Shattuck, an employee at Hughes Aircraft, a General Motors subsidiary. "But he's only going to be able to do as much as Congress lets him do."
Still, for many here, Bush's first term has been a disappointment. George Szubelak, also a General Motors employee, voted for Bush four years ago, but isn't sure now. "It seems that he's adrift. Now he says he has a plan. But it seems he doesn't have any direction in economic policy," he said.
Szubelak, though, isn't ready to pull the lever for Clinton, who still hasn't come into focus for him.
For others, that hesitation has blossomed into outright distrust. Some of it is based on Clinton's agenda: Randy Tazelaar, an AT&T; employee worried about losing his job, fears that Clinton's proposed tax increases would make the economy worse, as Bush charges.
But the doubts about Clinton here are grounded more in questions about his personal behavior and honesty. Local newspaper coverage of renewed controversy about Clinton's efforts to avoid the draft in Vietnam--and his subsequent explanations of his actions--seem to have invested old anxieties with new urgency.
"He's got a politician's face--he's smiling at you, but he's picking your pocket," said Laurene Way, a secretary from neighboring Sterling Heights, in a typical comment.
Mitigating Bush's advantage are doubts about his own trustworthiness, symbolized by his disavowal of his pledge not to raise taxes. Pat Malone, a substitute teacher and Democrat from Sterling Heights who voted for Bush in 1988, is backing Clinton. "Read my lips: You will not see me voting for Bush again," she said firmly. "I just don't think he lives up to what he promises."
Half an hour to the west, in Canton Township, all of these sentiments are present--although in different proportions. In 1988, Bush carried this younger, somewhat more affluent suburb of 57,000 by a 2 to 1 margin; his rally here late last month sent ripples of excitement through the town.
But here a strong sense of economic uneasiness seems to be eroding Bush's position. "The people here are two-income families, but they are struggling to maintain the standard of living they expect," said James Kosteva, the area's Democratic state representative. "There is a feeling they are only treading water."
Democrats hope they can peel away suburban voters who support abortion rights in more upscale areas like this one and Oakland County--the state's traditional Republican stronghold. Conversations last weekend suggest they are having some success. Several here were annoyed by the stress on family values at last month's GOP convention.
"I was open to Bush at that point, but that was very disturbing," said attorney Thomas Hartnett, who backed Bush four years ago but now supports Clinton. "It was like, do you want to be with us, or over there with the gays and lesbians?"
Still, for Hartnett, as with most of those interviewed, the key issue is economic uncertainty, symbolized in the state by the massive downsizing of General Motors now under way.
Unemployment in Michigan stands at 9%, up from 6.9% when Bush took office; per capita personal income, after adjusted for inflation, has actually declined since 1988.
William A. Sederburg, the vice president of Public Sector Consultants, an independent think tank in Lansing, said his firm's polls show Michigan residents extraordinarily uneasy about their economic future. This spring, 48% of those surveyed said they feared that either they or someone in their family would be laid off over the next year; among blue-collar workers, the figure was two-thirds.
"What has happened is that economic opportunity is not the issue in Michigan anymore; it's economic security," Sederburg said. "Which gives Bill Clinton an opportunity to bring back together the economic coalition of blacks and blue-collar whites that Ronald Reagan and Bush separated."
Like others in Garden City, a blue-collar suburb of 32,000 east of Canton, Kathy Lewis, a waitress, is worried about slipping down the ladder.
Her husband works at General Motors and, she said, "you hear rumors one day to the next about layoffs." That pulls her toward Clinton--but, like so many of her neighbors, she isn't certain he is the answer either.
"People want to see some kind of change," she said somberly. "But they're afraid to change."
In the final balancing of those competing impulses, the race here--and perhaps nationwide--will be decided.