State of the Union: Comparing Satisfaction 2001 to 2008

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Steepest decline in satisfaction in regard to state of the economy

PRINCETON, NJ -- As George W. Bush prepares to address the nation Monday for the 2008 State of the Union address, he will find an American public that is less satisfied with the state of nation in many specific areas than it was just before he took office in 2001. The greatest drops in national satisfaction over the past seven years concern the state of the economy and the United States' role in world affairs. Americans are also less satisfied with the way government works than they were just before Bush was inaugurated as president. But there are some areas in which satisfaction has increased over the course of the Bush presidency, including taxes, gun laws, and the strength of the military.

These results are based on a comparison of data from Gallup's annual Mood of the Nation survey, conducted each January since 2001. Each year, Gallup measures public satisfaction in each of 28 specific areas of U.S. society or policy (an item on security from terrorism was added in 2002). This year's poll was conducted Jan. 4-6, 2008. For a complete discussion of this year's results, please see "State of the Union: Both Good and Bad" in the Related Items section.

It would be reasonable to expect a decline in satisfaction in most areas, since just 24% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time, compared with 56% in mid-January 2001. But there have been significant decreases in reported satisfaction in only about half (13) of the 27 issue areas measured in both surveys.

The steepest decline in satisfaction has occurred with the state of the nation's economy, which has dropped from 68% in 2001 to 36% today. That 2001 figure is the highest level of satisfaction Gallup has measured during the eight-year history of the Mood of the Nation poll, and the current number is one of the lowest. It's conceivable that economic satisfaction could have dropped even further since the poll was conducted, given the intense focus on the nation's economic problems in the past two weeks.

Americans are also considerably less satisfied with the role the United States plays in world affairs -- just 40% are satisfied today, compared with 61% in 2001. Much of that decline could be attributed to United States' war with Iraq. Evidence of declining satisfaction on this measure was first apparent in early 2003, during the run-up to the war, and it has further eroded since that time.

Satisfaction with the government has declined, in terms of both how the system works (down 15 points) and the size and power of the government (down 9 points). The other item showing a double-digit decline in satisfaction is "the size and influence of major corporations," down 13 points since 2001.

Immigration has been a major public issue in the last several years. The public was not overly satisfied with the level of immigration back in 2001 (32%), but is less satisfied today (23%).

There are six areas in which public satisfaction is significantly higher now than in 2001. The biggest change in any single area is for the nation's gun laws, with which 48% are now satisfied compared with 38% seven years ago. While Americans have always been somewhat reluctant to express satisfaction with the amount they pay in federal taxes, they are more likely to do so today than they were in 2001. Bush has pushed through two major tax cuts during his presidency (the poll was conducted before the administration's recent proposals to provide tax relief to stimulate the economy). Americans also show increased satisfaction with U.S. military strength, race relations, and the standing of women and minorities.

In the remaining eight areas, Americans are about as satisfied now as they were in 2001. Some have shown a very slight increase, including the moral climate, acceptance of homosexuality, campaign finance, crime, and education. The quality of medical care and energy policy are down just slightly from where they were seven years ago.

The fact that there has been little change in satisfaction in some of the areas could be considered a disappointment from the standpoint that major legislative initiatives in education and energy were passed during Bush's tenure. One could argue, however, that satisfaction levels could potentially be lower (rather than stagnant) if this legislation had not been passed.

Implications

Considering the overall drop in national satisfaction since 2001 -- not to mention Bush's low approval ratings -- the fact that Americans are not currently more dissatisfied across all policy or societal areas is notable. However, it should be pointed out that most items reported here saw increased satisfaction ratings between 2001 and 2002, following the rally in government support post-9/11. Thus, the 2001 to 2008 comparison may indicate a slightly lower degree of change over the course of the Bush presidency than a 2002 to 2008 comparison would suggest.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,023 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 4-6, 2008. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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