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America's Mood, Bush Approval, Satisfaction With the Way Things Are Going, The Economy, What Are America's Biggest Problems?, What's the Bright Side?

America's Mood, Bush Approval, Satisfaction With the Way Things Are Going, The Economy, What Are America's Biggest Problems?, What's the Bright Side?

Just what is the mood of the nation as President George W. Bush prepares to make his second State of the Union address tonight? To borrow from Charles Dickens, it is neither the best of times nor the worst of times. But America's mood is certainly much less positive now than in recent years when presidents have stepped into the well of the House of Representatives to address the nation.

America's Mood

Our basic index of the mood of America is an average of three measures: 1) overall satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States, 2) ratings of the current economy, and 3) ratings of the president.

The pattern of change in the nation's mood over the past decade is clear:

  • Americans were in high spirits in the boom years of the late 1990s. Then, as the economy and dot-com mania came crashing down, so did the public's spirits.
  • By early September 2001, eight months after George W. Bush took office, presidential job approval was in the low 50% range, satisfaction with the way things were going in the United States was in the low 40% range, and only about a third of Americans rated the national economy as excellent or good. These readings were all significantly lower than they had been just a year or two earlier.
  • Then came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As a result of the attacks, the spirits of Americans went up, not down -- in part because of the general atmosphere of national unity and coming together to fight a common enemy. Americans' satisfaction levels jumped, as did the president's job approval ratings, reflecting not only the classic rally effect that usually occurs when the country has been threatened, but also the overall sense that the war on terrorism was being effectively waged. Ratings of the economy stayed much more muted, but had risen modestly by the spring of last year.
  • All of these post-Sept. 11 gains have gradually dissipated over the last six months or so.

Bush Approval

President Bush's job approval ratings are still above average, but nowhere near the high levels they reached in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and thus nowhere near as high as they were last year as he made his first State of the Union (SOTU) address.

The president's approval rating has averaged 60% across five separate Gallup Polls conducted this month. This marks a drop of more than 20 points from the approval levels Bush was enjoying as he prepared to make his SOTU address last year.

While much has been made about the fact that Bush's approval rating has fallen (particularly the fact that it was below 60% for the first time since Sept. 11 in several January polls), his ratings are still good by historical standards. The average approval rating for all presidents since World War II is 55%.

There is a strong possibility that Bush's job approval ratings could change after tonight's speech. At several points over the past decade, the SOTU speech has had a significant impact on the way the public views its chief executive:

  • At the time of President Bill Clinton's 1996 SOTU speech, his job approval rating was a below-average 46% (although this was up from the first years of his administration). His job approval rating jumped to percentages in the mid-50s in the weeks following the address, and he was on his way to a successful re-election bid that year.
  • Just prior to his 1998 SOTU speech, Clinton's approval rating was 59%. This was a pivotal moment in Clinton's presidency. His speech came just as revelations about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky were surfacing in the press. The speech went well and Clinton's job approval ratings jumped to percentages in the mid- to high-60s in the following weeks. It is widely believed that the speech's emphasis on the robustly positive economic climate helped reduce the public's appetite to remove Clinton from office on the basis of his moral indiscretions.
  • Clinton had a job approval rating of 69% just prior to his 1999 SOTU speech. This was remarkable in and of itself, given that he had been impeached by the House of Representatives and was waiting for a vote of conviction from the United States Senate. His ratings stayed high immediately after the speech, but fell as the year progressed.
  • George H.W. Bush was in the midst of a job approval meltdown as he made his 1992 State of the Union address. From a record 89% approval rating in late February and early March 1991, Bush's rating had fallen to 46% just prior to his speech. The Bush administration made it clear that the January 1992 speech would be a major showcase for the president's plans to address the faltering economy. But the speech didn't work well. Bush's job approval ratings continued to drop after the speech (to just 29% at one point in summer 1992) and Bush, of course, was defeated in his bid for re-election that fall.

The current president Bush is certainly well aware of his father's failure to ignite a positive public response in his 1992 SOTU speech, and no doubt recognizes that he is in a similar situation, at least as far as the economy is concerned. The president, perhaps ironically, would rather emulate Clinton's success with his 1998 and 1996 SOTU speeches.

Satisfaction With the Way Things Are Going

Satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States, now at 42%, is lower than at any other point since October 1996, and one point lower than it was in Gallup's Sept. 7-10, 2001, poll.

Several points of comparison are relevant in discussing this measure of public opinion on whether the country is, in general, on the right track or the wrong track.

  • From 1997 through the spring of 2001, and again from Sept. 11, 2001, through this past summer, more than half of Americans routinely said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country. At one point in early 1999 and again in December 2001, a full 70% of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going.
  • Despite its significant drop from the high readings described above, the current reading is not nearly as low as it was during two periods over the last quarter-century: the early 1990s and the late 1970s/early 1980s. At both of these times, satisfaction was routinely well below the 20% level, including the low point of 12% in July 1979 (just after Gallup began regularly using this measure of the nation's mood).

The Economy

Current ratings of the economy are the lowest of the three measures that make up Gallup's overall mood indicator.

Only 20% of Americans now rate the economy as excellent or good, and 31% rate it as poor. This -11 net rating (calculated by subtracting the percentage rating the economy as poor from the percentage rating it as excellent or good) is at its lowest point since November 1993, when 17% of Americans rated the economy as excellent or good and 33% rated it as poor.

Americans' net rating of the economy was in positive territory prior to Sept. 11, 2001, and in fact was in the 20% range as recently as the spring of last year. (The net rating was 61% in January of 2001 when Bush took office.) But Americans' feelings about the national economy have become decidedly more negative in the last month or two.

Of course, as is true for the other mood indicators we have reviewed, the current readings are not as low as others from the past. At one point in the summer of 1992, just as the elder Bush was seeking re-election, the net economic rating was -43%.

What Are America's Biggest Problems?

What's driving the more negative mood of the public as the president addresses the nation tonight?

It's clear that Americans have two major concerns: the economy and foreign policy. Forty-one percent of Americans mention some aspect of the economy when asked what they perceive as the "most important problem" facing the nation, while another 53% mention something to do with fear of war, terrorism, international issues, or national security. (Almost a third of Americans mention the possibility of war as the nation's most important problem, no doubt a direct reflection of the continuing focus on possible military action in Iraq.)

All other problems are mentioned by just a small percentage of respondents: 6% mention ethics and morality, 5% healthcare, and 3% education.

That's not to say that domestic issues other than the economy aren't important to Americans. A Gallup Poll in early January asked Americans to rate the importance of 14 listed issues. Terrorism, the economy, and the situation in Iraq emerged at the top of the list, just as they do in response to the open-ended "most important problem" question reviewed above. But Americans rank the importance of healthcare costs, education, and prescription drugs for senior citizens just slightly behind the top three issues.

Healthcare may be the "sleeper" issue of the new year; reports indicate the president will address it in tonight's speech.

Americans tell Gallup that healthcare coverage and healthcare costs are the top health problems facing the country today -- eclipsing cancer, AIDS, or any other disease. Investors interviewed as part of the UBS/Gallup Index of Investor Optimism rate prescription drug coverage for seniors as the single highest priority for the new Congress. And when Americans were asked to rate their satisfaction with a list of 28 issues in a recent Gallup Poll, the cost of healthcare ranked dead last.

Healthcare legislation may quickly rise to the top of both parties' agendas as the year goes on, perhaps even more so now that a doctor, Sen. Bill Frist, has assumed the role of Senate majority leader.

What's the Bright Side?

Finally, it is important to note that despite the gloomy picture of the American mood painted by the poll results presented above, Americans are much happier and more positive when asked to rate their personal situations:

  • Eighty-five percent of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in their own personal lives.
  • Eighty-eight percent are satisfied with the overall quality of life in the United States today.
  • Eighty-six percent say they personally are in a good mood, including 47% who say they are in a very good mood.
  • Fifty-four percent rate their personal financial situations as excellent or good, more than 30 percentage points higher than the proportion rating the national economic situation as excellent or good.


Dr. Frank Newport is a Gallup Senior Scientist and the author of Polling Matters (Warner Books, 2004) and The Evangelical Voter.

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