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Americans’ Attitude Toward Recession Shows Mix of Optimism, Despair

April 7, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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A new poll reveals that many Americans are more optimistic and confident about the general economy's recovery than they are about their own personal financial situations. The Hotline's Amy Walter assesses the new data.
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GWEN IFILL: The nation’s mood has been difficult to peg during this economic crisis, and a new New York Times-CBS News poll out today shows why.

On one hand, there is growing optimism about where the nation is going, with 35 percent of those surveyed expressing confidence and 44 percent only somewhat uneasy about where the economy is headed over the next few months.

On the other hand, when citizens were asked about their personal finances, they were pessimistic, with 70 percent of respondents saying they are somewhat or very worried that someone in their home might be jobless within a year.

What explains that difference in attitude? For that, we turn to Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Amy, how can these two views co-exist?

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: Well, I think the first thing to recognize is, just imagine what place we’re at when we’re saying in just our nation’s time here economically, when we’re saying that 39 percent of voters thinking that the country is headed in the right direction is actually good news, considering the fact that it was down at some point, at least back in the fall of last year, it was down to single digits, people thinking that things were headed in the right direction.

So the fact that we’re up into the 30s is a big improvement, but still not a whole lot of people…

GWEN IFILL: It’s relative.

AMY WALTER: Right, it’s relative, in terms of how people are feeling. I think the bottom line is — and I’m not the student of history as much as some others may be — but I think, when you look back and you think about where Americans fall in terms of the optimism spectrum, we’re always tilted more so I think than so many other countries toward thinking that around the bend things are going to get better, that we may be hitting the bottom or things may be bad now, but we’ve got to and we want to believe that things are going to be better once we turn the page.

GWEN IFILL: How much of this is about who is leading rather than how that person is leading?

AMY WALTER: I think that’s a good question and probably a little bit of both. Part of it is, I think there’s a sense from voters and Americans out there that at least we have a president who is doing something.

They may not see that there are tangible results for what’s happening right now, but they do see a president that is literally moving legislation through Congress, that is literally moving around the world, around the country, looks very active.

This is not somebody who’s isolated himself. Remember, we think about those last couple of months of the Bush administration. He would come out once a day, make a statement about the economy, go back in to the White House. This is a president who says, “I’m doing something.”

Approval of Obama's policies

GWEN IFILL: And yet these same polls show that his policies, the things he's doing, are actually not as popular as he is.

AMY WALTER: That's right. And it's very polarizing. So when you ask, is it about him or is it about what he's doing? It really says how you feel about how the economy is doing and how you feel about Barack Obama has more to do with your own political ideology than it does, perhaps, with any other factor in your life.

GWEN IFILL: So what's that...

AMY WALTER: So when you look at that, you say, if you are a Republican, odds are that you're not particularly enamored with President Obama and, at the same time, you are less likely to think things are going well in the economy.

Only 11 percent of Republicans think that things are headed in the right direction compared to 64 percent of Democrats who think things are going in the right direction.

That doesn't mean that Republicans -- there might be a Republican doing very well and a Democrat doing not so well economically. They have very different views on how they see the country going.

GWEN IFILL: What happened to the end of partisanship?

AMY WALTER: Yes, well, there's not that as much. What I think we are seeing -- and we saw this, and a Pew poll the other day brought this to light -- that you have a president right now who talked about post-partisanship, and yet at the same time what we're seeing is he has the biggest partisan gap in terms of his approval ratings than any president in modern times at this point in his presidency. It's about 61 points.

So right now you have a president who has almost unanimous support from Democrats. In this CBS poll, it's -- New York Times, it's 89 percent -- and only getting about 30 percent of Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: So assuming that this gap is the gap he needs, this gap of support, how does this president -- how is he going about exploiting that goodwill for his ultimate aims?

AMY WALTER: Well, there lies the real question. And it has less to do with, does he need to reach across the aisle? Does he need to keep Democrats on board?

It seems right now Democrats very happy with his policies. And, again, this shouldn't be that surprising. I mean, he's pushing forward policies that Democrats traditionally really like. It involves especially more government spending, more government involvement. Republicans really don't like to see more government spending and more government intervention.

The fulcrum, of course, is it's about independents. And this is where we will -- we've been watching them, of course, very intensely during the 2008 election. We're going to be watching them again right now. They're giving Obama in some cases the benefit of the doubt. He has a 63 percent approval rating among independents right now.

But they don't feel as strongly as Democrats do about the direction of the country, about some of his proposals, about how he's handling the economy. Only 49 percent of independents approve of the way he's handling the economy; 82 percent of Democrats approve.

Upcoming challenges

GWEN IFILL: OK. So assume that, for now, for this short term, things are not looking badly for this president. Is there a risk, if we had not hit bottom, in fact, if things begin to get worse?

AMY WALTER: There we go. So I think there's going to be some up-and-down here. You have a president who -- this poll was taken while he was abroad. There was great goodwill, outpouring of support for this new president and his wife, and there was, I mean, really tremendous press. So I think that's some of it.

You had a month where the stock market wasn't bottoming out. It looked like things might be coming back or a couple weeks or so where things start to look like they're turning the corner. You have people on Wall Street saying, "We think we might have hit the bottom." And you're right: This could all fall apart.

When you talk to folks around here and especially about what this means not just for his agenda but about the next campaign, they start talking about things like this summer. Let's wait until this summer and see how people are feeling by then. Will the economy have shown some signs of picking up some steam?

And, really, the ultimate report card for this president is going to be 2010 in the November elections. People either think that there have been some tangible results or they don't. Right now, they want to believe there will be tangible results.

We're seeing in our own polling, the Diageo-Hotline polling, that while people are supportive of the president, especially independents, their level of support is waning.

So they're getting a little bit -- you know, you can see that they want to believe something is going to happen. They haven't necessarily seen it yet. And they're going to want to have some results.

GWEN IFILL: OK, so assume that, for a moment, that if you live by the sword -- which is to say, wonderful, positive coverage coming out of the European trip -- you can also die by the sword, that, in fact, if there is no bottom that has been hit yet, that these same folks who now are putting their faith in the president, is there any -- I'm trying to think if there's an example where a president has basically risked on so much just goodwill?

AMY WALTER: Just on goodwill alone.

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

AMY WALTER: If you look back historically, where this president sits in terms of his approval rating, I mean, in this poll, he was at 66 percent. That's pretty high, even when compared to other presidents at this point in their term.

But, you know, Ronald Reagan at this point was at 60 percent. He went on, of course, to spend the 1982 -- the year of 1982 basically down in the 40s in terms of his approval rating. His party lost 26 seats that year. So you can -- this is where Republicans are hoping that that model is the one that they see in 2010.

He came in, again, like Reagan, optimism, things are going to get better, time for change, turn the page. Things started to bottom out at the end of '81, didn't get better into '82, and that party lost seats in the elections.

So there's no doubt even among the core constituency, Democrats really do like him. But as I said, even -- when you ask Democrats on the stimulus package, for example, do you think that will be successful in turning the economy around? They believe yes; Republicans feel no.

But Republicans feel more confident that it will fail than Democrats feel it will succeed. So you have more people right now who believe that this path -- "I'm confident this path isn't the right one that we're on" than those who are saying, "I think it's going to work."

GWEN IFILL: And that could shift to the opposite direction at any moment.

AMY WALTER: Right.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter from the Hotline, thank you so much.

AMY WALTER: Thanks, Gwen.