In U.S., 60% Tuned In to Inauguration as It Happened

by Lydia Saad

Nearly half (46%) rate Obama’s speech as excellent

PRINCETON, NJ -- Six in 10 Americans tuned in live to the presidential inauguration ceremonies on Tuesday. Another 20% heard or read news reports of the event while 20% caught none of it.


The live audience included 70% of nonworking Americans, but also 53% of those currently employed -- suggesting that many workers either took the day off or had the opportunity to watch or hear the ceremonies at work.

Americans were clearly more interested in the inauguration of Barack Obama than they were in George W. Bush's second inauguration four years ago. In 2005, only 40% of Americans said they watched or heard the inaugural ceremonies live.

The greater attention paid to Obama's inaugural likely stems from the combination of his taking office for the first time, his being the first Democrat in eight years to assume the presidency, and the historic significance of the nation's installing its first African-American president.

High Praise for the Speech

There was considerable pressure on President Obama, known for his oratory skills, to deliver an impressive inauguration speech, and from Americans' perspective, he succeeded. Among those who saw or otherwise followed the inauguration on Tuesday, close to half -- 46% -- say Obama's speech was "excellent." That compares with a 25% excellent rating for Bush's 2005 inauguration speech. Another 35% say Obama's speech was good, while only 15% consider it "just okay" or worse.


More broadly, 62% of Americans say the inauguration makes them feel more hopeful about the next four years. Only 11% say it makes them feel less hopeful.

Bush's inauguration was associated with far less optimism, as just 43% felt more hopeful about the country over his upcoming term while 25% felt less hopeful.


Democratic Enthusiasm

Democrats show an extraordinarily high degree of enthusiasm around this year's inauguration, with 74% saying they watched or heard it live, 71% rating Obama's speech "excellent," and 91% reporting that the day's events made them feel more hopeful about the next four years.

While one might expect such positive reactions from the supporters of a president's own party, four years ago, only 48% of Republicans watched Bush's inauguration live, 46% rated Bush's speech "excellent," and 77% felt more hopeful about the next four years as a result of the inauguration.


Today, while Republicans are decidedly less positive than are Democrats about the 2009 inauguration, few Republicans are negative in their reactions. Half of Republicans watched or heard the inauguration live. And while just 14% of Republicans who heard or saw Obama's speech rate it "excellent," another 41% consider it "good." Also, slightly more Republicans say they are more hopeful than less hopeful about the next four years, 31% vs. 27%.

By contrast, in 2005 just 33% of Democrats tuned in to the inauguration ceremonies, only 11% felt more hopeful about the next four years while 53% felt less hopeful, and a mere 3% rated Bush's speech "excellent."


Independents generally fall between the two partisan groups in their reactions to this year's inauguration, although they are no more likely than Republicans to report having tuned in live. Fifty-two percent of independents say they watched or heard the inauguration ceremony as it happened, 36% rate Obama's speech "excellent," and 57% are more hopeful about the future.


Bottom Line

Bush won re-election in 2004 with nearly 51% of the national popular vote, not much lower than the nearly 53% for Obama in 2008. Nevertheless, public reaction to Obama's swearing-in ceremony is altogether different than it was to Bush's in 2005, with Obama's ceremony garnering heavy viewership/listenership, highly positive reviews for Obama's speech, and broad optimism among Americans about the next four years.

The reason may be twofold. Obama enters office as an empty vessel, someone who has not yet had to make the kind of big policy decisions that inevitably bring public criticism. This may explain the difference between Republicans' relatively positive reviews of Obama today compared with Democrats' negative reviews of Bush four years ago. At the same time, the degree of enthusiasm Obama engenders from Democrats nationwide is remarkable even by partisan standards. Although the vast majority of Republicans approved of the job Bush was doing as president in January 2005, they showed nowhere near the level of enthusiasm for his second inaugural as Democrats show today for Obama's inaugural. Obama enjoys a special relationship with his Democratic base, and it will be interesting to see how long it endures.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 20, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error 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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