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American Optimism Makes a Comeback

By David Paul Kuhn

Americans' attitude about the nation's future has steadily recovered in recent weeks. Happy days are not yet here again. But from the course of the country to the economy, polls show the public's mood is decidedly better now than at any point in the past year.

The public's satisfaction with the direction of the country is the highest it has been since April 2007, according to Gallup tracking. Only 26 percent of Americans say they are satisfied today. But a mere 15 percent expressed satisfaction in mid-February. A third of Americans now believe the economy is improving, twice the portion who were optimistic in mid-January.

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Americans now seem to believe that the worst is behind them. A slim majority of Americans, 52 percent, agreed that the U.S. economy has stabilized. Last month hardly more than a third said the same. Pessimism has also dwindled. Today, only 36 percent of the public believe the worst is yet to come. Last month, 57 percent said the same, according to Ipsos/McClatchy polls.

A CBS News/New York Times poll reported last week that only 39 percent of Americans "feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction." While still low, that's the highest "right direction" result since February 2005. Rasmussen polling records a similar trend, finding that more Americans believe that the nation is heading in the right direction than any time since 2004. Consumer confidence has also reached its highest point in the past year, according to Gallup.

The upward momentum bodes well for President Obama. His popularity has remained relatively stable in recent weeks. But the marked turnaround, while likely rooted in the stabilizing stock market, signals a shift in the public outlook that usually tracks the approval or disapproval of a president.

Not every indicator has turned upward however. The jobs outlook, as far as the public is concerned, remains bleak. But gains in the employment rate usually follow the first stages of an economic recovery. This may explain why Americans are not more sanguine about their employment even as they are at least less pessimistic about the economy overall.

The American mood has proven resilient in the past. In September 1971, with the United States suffering from a recession, concern over the economy had reached its highest level since 1936 according to Gallup. By June 1973, amid inflation, the cover of Time magazine showed men chipping away at a dollar sign. The headline read "Nixon's other crisis." In August 1974, as Gerald Ford took over the presidency, the recession languished on. Only 13 percent of Americans believed economic conditions would get "better" in six months, while 68 percent said they'd get worse. By March of 1975, 35 percent believed conditions would get better and 50 percent said worse. A month later, for the first time since the public's economic outlook tumbled, more said economic conditions would get better than worse.

Public confidence generally takes years to rebound. Today, not surprisingly, Democrats are primarily responsible for the recovery so far. Democratic satisfaction with the nation's direction has doubled, from 21 percent in mid-February to 40 percent today. Yet Republicans and independents' views have also improved 6 to 9 percentage points, respectively.

Obama cannot take too much solace in the turnaround however. Gains in the public mood can quickly stagnate. Ronald Reagan is praised historically for reviving American optimism. In August 1979, only 12 percent of Americans were satisfied with the direction of the country. By November, that portion rose to 19 percent. Come June 1981, under Reagan, a third of the public was satisfied with the direction of the United States. Yet six months later satisfaction was again receding, ebbing to a quarter from spring to winter 1982. It was not until 1984 that as many people were satisfied as dissatisfied with the direction of the country.

The question for Obama is whether his momentum will continue as it has or stall as Reagan's did. Should the rate of recovery in the public outlook continue as it has in recent months, satisfaction could overtake dissatisfaction far sooner for Obama than Reagan.

At the peak of the financial crisis, in October, the gap between the near majority who thought the nation was on the wrong track and the few who believed it was on the right track was roughly 75 points. Today, about half dozen polls show, the same gap has narrowed to between 10 and 15 points. That outlook remains more negative than positive. But in the context of the abysmal national mood only a half-year ago, the tepid pessimism of today feels almost like optimism.

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David Paul Kuhn covers national affairs for RealClearPolitics and is the author of The Neglected Voter. He can be reached at david@realclearpolitics.com
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