Amid endless stories of Washington’s dysfunction, another powerful story is emerging, and it seems almost independent of any actions of the President or Congress. In poll after poll, public perceptions of the economy’s performance are up. People’s views of their own situations are more positive than at any time in the past 15 years.
In its mid-September preliminary analysis of consumer sentiment, the University of Michigan reported that consumers’ assessments of current economic conditions reached the highest level since 2000. In the August Quinnipiac University poll, 62 percent described the national economy as “excellent” or “good,” the highest level since the poll first asked the question in 2001. These responses mirror the results from a CBS News poll in which views were equally upbeat: 69 percent rated the economy as “very good” or “good,” the most positive response in that survey since the halcyon economic days of the late 1990s. Nearly six-in-ten in an August Bloomberg poll said that they were moving closer to their hopes for their career and finances, while 27 percent said they were moving farther away.
In Gallup’s questions on concerns about job security and benefits, sentiment has returned to its pre-2008 levels. Most people now say jobs are returning to their communities and that they could get a job as good or better than the one they currently have, if need be. But before we pop the champagne corks, let’s briefly review what Americans have been through in the past decade and what anxieties remain.
Public opinion sank to uncharted depths in 2008, and many felt our financial system was on the verge of collapse. In a late September Gallup poll that year, 41 percent said they were afraid. People were absorbed by financial news. In October, 70 percent reported that they were following economic developments “very closely.” The crisis became, according to Pew’s polling, one of the top ten most closely followed stories in its two decades of news interest index studies. In a February 2009 Ipsos survey, 54 percent said the worst was yet to come. In another Gallup poll that year, more than half said they were worse off than the year before, a response tied for the lowest rating in the 32 years Gallup had asked this question. In a Pew survey taken several years after the crash, 60 percent or more thought wealthy people, large corporations, and banks and financial institutions benefited a great deal or fair amount from government policies to address the recession. Far fewer thought the middle class (27 percent) or poor people (16 percent) did.
Views about Wall Street, never very charitable, plummeted after the crash. The responses to a series of questions asked by Harris about the ethics and motivations of its denizens reached all-time lows. Record numbers said that most people on Wall Street were not as honest or moral as other people and that most people there would be willing to break the law if they thought they could make a lot of money and get away with it. At the same time, most people acknowledged that Wall Street was absolutely essential for business to prosper.
While Americans are more confident than in a long time about their prospects, they are less sanguine about the stability of the financial system. In a 2013 Pew poll, only a third thought it was more secure. In the new Bloomberg poll, 63 percent said it was realistic to expect another crash in the next several years.
There is no way of knowing from the polls whether the crash and its aftermath has left deeper scars on the public. After all, confidence in almost all central institutions has been bumping along at very low levels for years and will not rebound any time soon. High confidence in banks is up 10 points since the crash in Gallup’s annual confidence survey, but only a third say they have this level of confidence now. People’s trust in the federal government has been low for decades with only a few breaks in that trend. Views of the media have been abysmal across several presidencies. The 2016-2017 ratings bonanza for some cable channels has done nothing to improve confidence in the media. In 1984-1985 and again in 2000-2001 economic improvement made Americans feel better about many things seemingly unrelated to the economy. They felt better about the environment and about immigration, to take two issues. In June, Gallup released its annual update of confidence in 14 major institutions, reporting that high confidence inched up from 32 to 35 percent, driven mostly by Republicans. Low confidence in Washington is the new normal and people spontaneously volunteer some aspect of government dysfunction when Gallup asks them about the country’s most important problem. In October 2013, when a third gave this response, it was the first time since October 2008 that economy was not the top issue. More people mentioned dysfunction then than did so during Watergate (26 percent).
Americans understand the economy will have its ups and downs. So people go about their daily lives, thankful for their families and their jobs, and for economic improvement they are finally seeing. The economy may be working for workers, but little else in Washington is.[“Source-forbes”]