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U.S. Satisfaction at 11% in Early January

U.S. Satisfaction at 11% in Early January

Story Highlights

  • 11% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S.
  • Satisfaction is down from 16% last month but similar to 13% last summer
  • Donald Trump's four-year average satisfaction at 30%

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Before the Jan. 20 inauguration of Joe Biden as the nation's 46th president, 11% of Americans said they are satisfied with the way things are going in the U.S. This is down from 16% in December and marginally lower than readings of 13% and 14% in July, August and September last year, while remaining a few percentage points above the all-time low of 7% recorded in 2008.

Line graph. Americans' satisfaction with the direction of the U.S. has fallen to 11%, down from 16% last month.

The COVID-19 pandemic gripping the nation is clearly a factor in the very low satisfaction reading -- as are the tensions caused by President Donald Trump's failure to recognize the election results and the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, and the fact that the January reading came at a time of transition in the transfer of power.

Last year began much more positively, with U.S. satisfaction readings above 40% in each of the first three months of 2020, including a 45% satisfaction measure in February, the highest since the George W. Bush administration. But, with the bourgeoning recognition of the impact of the coronavirus last spring, Americans' satisfaction with the direction of the U.S. began to fall -- and has been at 20% or lower each month since May, with the exception of a 28% reading in October and 21% reading in November.

Other factors likely behind the current 11% satisfaction reading include worry about the nation's governance. Gallup's Jan. 4-15 survey was, for the most part, in the field after the Jan. 6 insurrection and invasion of the U.S. Capitol -- and in that same survey, Americans named the way the nation is being governed as the country's top problem.

Additionally, January is a transition month between administrations. Satisfaction among those identifying with the party of the outgoing president typically drops before satisfaction among those identifying with the party of the incoming president begins to rise, thus keeping the overall average satisfaction level low. Exemplifying this phenomenon, the Jan. 4-15 data broken out by party show that Republican satisfaction with the way things are going in the country has collapsed -- down to 14% -- while Democratic satisfaction remains extremely low at 5%.

Line graph. Republicans' satisfaction with the direction of the U.S. is tied with independents' at 14%. Democrats' satisfaction is at 5%.

The same pattern is evident in previous presidential transition years. As Trump prepared to take office in January 2017, just 22% of Republicans were satisfied, a reading that jumped to 55% by February of that year. And in January 2009, as Barack Obama was about to enter the White House, only 9% of Democrats were satisfied, a figure that rose to 22% in February and to 50% by May of that year. The same pattern occurred in early 2001 and 1993.

It can be anticipated that satisfaction will increase in February and the months following as President Biden settles into the White House (and as Democrats take control of both houses of Congress), and as rank-and-file Democrats' satisfaction begins to reflect more positive views of the way things are going.

Americans Are Intensely Dissatisfied

Gallup occasionally follows the satisfaction question with a probe asking Americans if they are "very" satisfied/dissatisfied or "just somewhat" satisfied/dissatisfied. This probe has been included in surveys only on a sporadic basis, so the results do not provide a comprehensive indication of the strength of satisfaction over the years. But it is noteworthy that the level of strong dissatisfaction in the current survey is extremely high, with 66% of Americans saying they are very dissatisfied, higher than any other measure in Gallup's trend. Meanwhile, 22% are somewhat dissatisfied.

This 3-to-1 ratio of strong to mild dissatisfaction is the highest such ratio Gallup has measured. Previously, the highest ratio was 2-to-1 in October 2011, when 57% of Americans were very dissatisfied and 28% were somewhat dissatisfied.

On the other side of the ledger, Americans consistently are more likely to say they are somewhat satisfied rather than very satisfied. Across the 27 times that Gallup has included the "very/somewhat" probe, there has never been an instance where the very satisfied percentage outweighed the somewhat satisfied percentage. Currently, 3% of Americans are very satisfied while 8% are somewhat satisfied.

Republicans and Democrats at this point differ little in the intensity of their satisfaction levels; Democrats are only modestly more likely to say they are very dissatisfied than are Republicans.

Intensity of Satisfaction, by Party
Very satisfied Somewhat satisfied Somewhat dissatisfied Very dissatisfied
% % % %
U.S. adults 3 8 22 66
Republicans 4 9 19 66
Independents 2 11 23 62
Democrats 1 4 22 73
Gallup, Jan. 4-15, 2021

Trump's Term Average as High as Any Since George W. Bush's First Term

The average satisfaction rating during Trump's term in office -- from February 2017 through January of this year -- is 30%. That is below the average satisfaction reading of 36% since Gallup began asking the question in 1979. And, as noted, the 11% reading in the final days of Trump's administration goes on record as one of the lowest in Gallup's trend. The only lower readings came in October 2008 (7% and 9% in two separate surveys) and in December 2008 (10%). The current 11% reading is tied with the same result in November 2008 and in August and September 2011.

But average satisfaction during Trump's overall term turns out to be at least marginally higher than the averages for each of Obama's two terms (23% and 26%, respectively) and George W. Bush's second term (28%). This is the case even though Trump's job approval rating was lower than Obama's in both of his terms (although higher than the 37% average approval for Bush during his second term).

Satisfaction was significantly higher in Bush's first term (49%), reflecting the rally effect seen across a number of measures after 9/11. Gallup did not measure satisfaction on a routine, monthly basis before 2001, but the measures that were taken show high levels of satisfaction in Bill Clinton's second term during the dot-com boom. In fact, the single highest reading in Gallup's history was 71% in February 1999, reflecting not only the booming economy but also the paradoxical positivity that came after Clinton's impeachment trial. Satisfaction also reached the 50% to 60% level at several points during George H.W. Bush's single term in office, and in Ronald Reagan's second term.

Summing It Up: What Does Satisfaction Tell Us?

This measure of satisfaction with the way things are going in the nation is important, under the assumption that an optimal goal for any society is to maximize citizens' social and political wellbeing. With that in mind, it is clear that American society is not doing so well, as it has been 17 years since more than half of Americans reported being satisfied with the state of the nation.

The economy is clearly a major factor driving Americans' dissatisfaction; many of the highest levels of satisfaction Gallup has measured came in robust economic times, including in particular during parts of the 1980s and the latter years of the 1990s. Americans also have evinced high levels of satisfaction when challenged internationally, after 9/11 and after the successful foreign interventions in the Gulf War.

The 45% satisfaction reading in February of last year reflected Americans' recognition that the economy was in good shape, and it is possible that satisfaction levels could have gone higher. But then came the pandemic, which affected not only Americans' health, job situations and lifestyles, but also the national economy. Trump's disputatious denial of the November election results and insurrectionists' invasion of the U.S. Capitol had a further negative effect, and he left office amid nearly record-low levels of satisfaction and with his lowest personal job approval rating.

An obvious milestone for the nation's leaders going forward would be satisfaction levels at the 50% level or higher. The rigid partisanship that has typified Americans' attitudes in recent years makes that objective difficult to reach, since those whose party is not in power find it hard to bring themselves to be positive about any aspect of the way things are going. However, if the pandemic is brought under control and the economy strengthens in the months ahead, higher levels of satisfaction will almost certainly follow.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

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