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Americans' Satisfaction With U.S. Depends on President's Party

Americans' Satisfaction With U.S. Depends on President's Party

by Deborah Jordan Brooks


PRINCETON, NJ -- For 22 years, Gallup has asked Americans "In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?"The answer, an indicator of the public mood, has varied within a 60-point range over the years, reaching a low of 12% in July 1979 and a high of 71% in February 1999. In an April 6-8 2001, Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who are satisfied is closer to the upper end of that range, at 50%.

The variation in these ratings over the years suggests that the public reacts to what they see happening around them. The lowest point, in 1979, came in the midst of rampant inflation and long gas lines, and the 1999 high point coincided with a strong economy and stock boom.

Between 1979, when Gallup first asked this satisfaction question, and the present, the political party in the White House changed three times -- from Democratic to Republican in 1980, from Republican to Democrat in 1992, and from Democrat to Republican in 2000. Two of these transitions were accompanied by overall increases in satisfaction. In the summer of 1992, prior to George Bush's defeat by Bill Clinton, public satisfaction with the way things were going in the United States was very low (14%), but that figure more than doubled soon after the election. The trend of low satisfaction prior to the election and higher satisfaction after it was evident in the transition between Carter and Reagan (though the increase in satisfaction, from only 12% to 33%, was delayed for several months into Reagan's first term). The recent election of George W. Bush has not, of yet at least, produced an uptick in satisfaction, but rather a modest fall to 50% from 63% in August 2000.

Whatever the overall change in satisfaction levels, a more in-depth analysis reveals important differences beneath the surface. A review of the last 22 years shows that Americans' satisfaction is strongly related to their party affiliation in conjunction with that of the president in the White House. Holding everything else constant, Democrats tend to view the world around them with higher levels of satisfaction when a Democrat is in the White House, and are less satisfied when the president is a Republican. Republicans exhibit the same patterns -- they express high satisfaction levels when a Republican is in the White House and significantly lower levels when a Democrat is in charge.

Democrats and Republicans Differ on Satisfaction Levels Under Clinton and Bush
The recent White House transition is illuminating. As of April 2001, Republicans are 1.7 times more likely to be satisfied than Democrats, with 66% of Republicans and only 39% of Democrats expressing satisfaction. This is almost an exact reversal of the pre-election distribution -- in August 2000, Democrats were 1.7 times more likely than Republicans to be satisfied (78% of Democrats versus only 44% of Republicans were satisfied with the way things are going in the United States).

Thus, over the period of eight months during which the White House changed from Democratic to Republican hands, Republicans' levels of satisfaction increased by 21 points. During the same period, Democrats' level of satisfaction decreased by 37 points. Despite the fact that the overall satisfaction level dropped by 10 points -- not surprisingly, given the downturn in the economy -- the satisfaction levels of Republicans increased by almost 50%, while Democrats experienced an almost 50% drop.

Recent History Supports This Trend
This same pattern of overnight change in satisfaction levels within partisan groups emerges in other elections when a president of the other party takes office -- specifically, the switch from George Bush Sr. to Clinton, and from Carter to Reagan before that.

Prior to the 1992 elections, public satisfaction with the direction of the country was at its 1990s nadir of 14%. Under the previous Bush administration, Republicans were 3 times as likely to be satisfied as Democrats (27% vs. 9%). After the 1992 election and subsequent transition to Clinton, the trend shifted in the opposite direction, with more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans expressing satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States (35% and 15%, respectively). Thus, as Clinton took office, Democrats' satisfaction surged by 26 points, while Republicans' satisfaction fell by 12 points.

The Carter/Reagan transition follows a similar pattern, with very low satisfaction overall (12% in July 1979), and a significant partisan difference (only 8% of Republicans were satisfied versus 16% of Democrats). The tables turned after Reagan's election -- by June 1981, 47% of Republicans, compared to only 23% of Democrats, were satisfied with the way things were going in the United States.

Thus, in both 1980 and 1992, Americans of the same party as the new president were twice as likely to be satisfied as the partisans of the opposing party.

Why the Changing Levels?
Why might these rapid and dramatic partisan reversals of satisfaction appear when the party occupying the White House shifts?  It is possible that, at the subconscious level, partisans may engage in "cognitive dissonance reduction."  It may be difficult for a partisan to admit that things are going well under the administration of a president of the other party.  To do so might cause one to question one's own partisanship ("if everything is going well under this administration, then why do I support the other party?").  Some theorists might argue that the way an individual could most easily reconcile these conflicting feelings would be to simply change his or her assessment of how things are going at the time.

The shift in satisfaction when a president of a different party takes over can also be viewed as a logical change on the part of partisans who care about the way the country is being led. Under a Democratic president, a Republican may not perceive that things are going well because the Democratic president may be passing liberal policies with which the Republican disagrees, and perhaps overlooking conservative initiatives. To that same Republican, things may suddenly look better when a Democratic president is defeated and replaced by a Republican president.

If nothing else, this analysis reinforces the powerful role played by the president and party politics in contemporary America. It is important to note that the basic satisfaction question says nothing about politics, and has no explicit reference to the president.  It is a very general question usually asked near the beginning of a survey, before specific aspects of politics or policies are referenced.  Thus, the data suggest that a whole class of Americans -- those who identify with the party not in power in the White House -- can apparently have a generalized negative view of the state of affairs across the entire country simply because the president belongs to the "other" party. And, almost overnight, when a new president from the "correct" party arrives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, there can be an abrupt shift, and the formerly bleak outlook transforms into a much rosier one.

Survey Methods

The results reported here are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of at least 1,000 adults, 18 years and older, conducted between 1979 and 2001. For results based on these samples, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

In general, are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time?



Survey Date

% Satisfied

% Satisfied


% Satisfied

Clinton to George W. Bush

Early George W. Bush

2001 Apr 6-8




Transition under Clinton

2001 Jan 10-14




Late Clinton

2000 Aug 18-19






George H. W. Bush to Clinton


Early Clinton

1993 May 21-23




Transition under Bush Sr.

1993 Jan 8-11




Late Bush Sr.

1992 Jun 12-14




Carter to Reagan



Early Reagan

1981 Jun 2




Transition under Carter

1981 Jan 6




Late Carter

1979 Jul 10





Deborah Jordan Brooks is a Gallup Guest Scholar.

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