PRINCETON, NJ -- As 2009 draws down, Gallup reviews four of the key trends that reveal how Americans reacted to the twists and turns experienced in public affairs and the economy over the past decade.
Satisfaction With the Way Things Are Going
At the start of this decade, Americans' satisfaction with the direction of the country stood at 69%, near the record-high 71% established in early 1999 that was fueled by a booming economy. Satisfaction levels quickly descended in 2001 as economic concerns mounted, and fell below 50% in mid-August of that year (48%). However, in the first few months after the 2001 terrorist attacks, public satisfaction quickly rebounded -- part of a broader "rally around the flag" effect triggered by 9/11 -- reaching 70% in December.
The 9/11 effect on U.S. satisfaction dissipated in less than a year, with satisfaction returning to 49% by July 2002. Americans' satisfaction with the direction of the country generally remained between 40% and 50% in 2003 (averaging 46%), but fell to an average 43% in 2004, 38% in 2005, 31% in 2006, and 28% in 2007. Satisfaction sank further -- along with a faltering U.S. stock market -- at the start of 2008, dropping well below 20% for the first time since 1992.
U.S. satisfaction nearly collapsed in late 2008, falling from 21% in September to 8% October in the midst of the emerging Wall Street financial crisis. Satisfaction recovered only slightly over the next few months, then rose more sharply in April and May 2009 -- driven largely by increased satisfaction among Democrats under the new Obama administration. Satisfaction in 2009 peaked at 36% in August. However in the last few months of the year, it settled back into the mid-20s, finishing the decade at 25% in December -- still below the decade average.
Most Important Problem
As might be imagined, Americans have identified a wide variety of issues as being "the most important problem facing this country" when asked this question throughout the decade. In Gallup's last reading of the decade -- in December 2009 -- 29 different problems were mentioned by at least 1% of Americans.
The accompanying graph tracks the decade-long trends in Americans' mentions of four of these problems: 1) the economy (a category that includes all mentions of economic issues); 2) terrorism; 3) wars (a category including either general mentions of wars or mentions of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically); and 4) healthcare.
Two of these four issues -- terrorism and wars -- were basically not on Americans' radar in the first year and a half of the decade. That changed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Mentions of terrorism as the nation's most important problem went from zero in early September 2001 to 46% in October of that year. Concerns over terrorism began to decline from that point on, and by decade's end, only 1% to 2% of Americans were mentioning terrorism as the country's top problem.
"The lowest presidential job approval rating of the decade was 25%, and Bush reached it three times in the fall of 2008, including at the time of the 2008 election to choose his successor."
Americans' mentions of war as the nation's most important problem (including general mentions of war as well as specific mentions of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan) also increased after Sept. 11, and began to rise substantially in the final months of 2002 and into 2003 as the Bush administration made it clear that the U.S. was going to become militarily involved in Iraq. By May 2003, after Bush's "Mission Accomplished" speech on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, mentions of war as the nation's top problem fell and remained low through the summer of that year. Then, as it became evident that the Iraq war was by no means over -- and as U.S. casualties mounted, hitting 1,000 in September 2004 -- mentions of Iraq as the nation's top problem began to increase, and basically stayed relatively high through the summer of 2008, before falling to the single digits as the decade ended. Mentions of Afghanistan as the nation's top problem were at a low 4% at decade's end.
Americans' designation of economic-related issues as the nation's top problems waxed and waned during the decade. Over 20% of Americans were mentioning some aspect of the economy as the nation's top problem in early 2000. Those concerns rose to over 50% by May 2003, but fell into the teens by late 2006 and into 2007. Then, beginning in the late fall of 2007, Americans increasingly began to mention aspects of the economy as the top problem, with a sharp rise in concerns by the winter and spring of 2008. By the summer of 2008, 60% or more of Americans were mentioning some aspect of the economy as the nation's top problem. Concern spiked even higher in the fall of 2008 and winter of 2009, reaching the decade's highest point in February of this year, when 86% of Americans spontaneously mentioned economic issues as the nation's top problem. As the decade ended, economic concerns had abated somewhat, dropping to 55% in December 2009.
The perception that healthcare is the nation's top problem was fairly scarce during most of the decade, reaching a low point of 1% in October 2001 (as terrorism overrode other concerns). By the summer of 2009, as President Obama and congressional leaders began to focus intently on new healthcare reform legislation, the public's mentioning of healthcare as the country's top problem began to rise again, reaching 26% by late August/early September. At decade's end, concerns over healthcare had drifted back to 16%.
Presidential Job Approval
The decade has spanned the administrations of three presidents: Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
Clinton's final year in office was fairly uneventful. Clinton had solid ratings in the high 50% and low 60% range for most of 2000, finishing his presidency on a high note with a 66% job approval rating.
Bush began his term in early 2001 with ratings also in the high 50% and low 60% range, but his job approval ratings began to settle down, and by Gallup's Sept. 7-10, 2001, survey, Bush's job approval was at 51%. Then, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Bush was the recipient of the largest rally effect in Gallup history, with his approval rating rising 39 percentage points to 90% in the space of two weeks. The 90% rating is the highest in Gallup history. Bush's approval rating -- perhaps inevitably -- generally sloped downward after that, but remained well above average in 2002 and for most of 2003. By the time he sought re-election in 2004, his approval rating hovered near 50%.
Bush's second term was characterized by below-average ratings, which sank to the 30% range in his final two years in office -- including frequent drops into the 20s in his last year. The lowest presidential job approval rating of the decade was 25%, and Bush reached it three times in the fall of 2008, including at the time of the 2008 election to choose his successor. Bush's last approval rating, just before he left office, was 34%.
Obama took office with job approval ratings in the 60% range, beginning the honeymoon phase of his presidency, which lasted well into the summer months. By late summer, however, his approval ratings were in the low 50% range; they dipped below the majority approval level in November, and have been at or near 50% in December.
Congressional Job Approval
The decade of the 2000s saw both a new high and a new low in congressional job approval. The rally in support for government institutions after the 9/11 terror attacks extended to Congress, as 84% of Americans in October 2001 said they approved of the job Congress was doing, shattering the previous high of 57% from February 1998.
But that era of goodwill did not last, as approval ratings of Congress gradually descended -- following the same general pattern seen for George W. Bush's presidential job approval ratings. By October 2005, congressional job approval fell below 30%; it was 26% in the fall of 2006 when Americans transferred party control of both houses of Congress to the Democrats in that year's midterm elections.
The change in party control only had a very short-lived positive impact on Congress' ratings, which improved 16 points from December 2006 (21%) to February 2007 (37%) after the transfer of power. By August 2007, approval had dipped to a record-tying low of 18%, and the following year, Congress' ratings established a new historical low of 14%.
The new Obama administration helped to boost ratings of Congress again in 2009; congressional approval went from 19% in January to 39% in March. But again, those higher ratings did not persist, and at the end of the decade, Congress' job rating stands at 25%.