Americans Remain Satisfied With State of the Country

by Lydia Saad

Remain optimistic that the economy will improve


PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are in fairly good moods these days. One of the intriguing public responses to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was that more Americans reported feeling satisfied with the way things are going in the country than they had before the attacks -- a finding that continues to hold.

The latest Gallup poll conducted May 6-9, finds 56% of Americans satisfied with the way things are going in the country and 40% dissatisfied. The current satisfied figure is down substantially from December's high point of 70%, but is still well above the average rating of 46% recorded in the two months preceding Sept. 11. This general indicator of national wellbeing jumped from 43% the week before the terrorist attacks, to 61% in the first few days after them.

Satisfaction With the Way
Things Are Going in the United States

The Satisfaction-Economy Connection

Historically, Gallup has found that Americans' satisfaction with the country is closely linked to consumer confidence in the economy. Public approval of the way the president is handling his job is also linked to confidence in the economy. Using the simple mathematical rule "if A=B and B=C then A=C," it is also true that general satisfaction with the country is linked to presidential job approval.

Although the math has become more complicated in recent months, the relationships still hold. Before Sept. 11, Americans' evaluation of current economic conditions served as a reliable predictor of general satisfaction with the country and of the president's approval ratings. If respondents described the economy as "excellent or good," the chances were high that they were also satisfied with the general state of the nation and approved of the way the president is doing his job. Those with high ratings for the economy also tended to be economic optimists, saying they felt the strong economy would continue or even improve (as opposed to worsen).

The following chart shows how Americans' satisfaction with the state of the nation compares to approval of presidential job performance and their ratings of the current economy. Immediately after Sept. 11, Americans' satisfaction with the nation and their approval of the way George W. Bush is handling his job rose sharply, and have gradually been declining ever since. By contrast, after an initial post-Sept. 11 rally in economic ratings, these numbers gradually fell, but recently have been improving. Essentially, since Sept. 11 these economic ratings have moved in opposite direction to public satisfaction with the United States and President Bush.

Current Economy Rating vs.
Presidential Approval and U.S. Satisfaction

One might assume that this means that the war on terrorism has supplanted the economy as the basis on which Americans are judging the state of the nation and the president. But the answer may not be that simple.

Although Americans' ratings of the economy have diverged from their satisfaction with the United States and with the president, their outlook for the economy has not. For the past eight months, at the same time that barely a third of the public has rated current economic conditions in positive terms, a growing number has expressed optimism that the economy is improving -- rising from 28% in mid-September to 52% today.

The following graph compares Americans' satisfaction with the country and their approval of President Bush to the percentage of Americans who perceive the economy is improving. On this basis, the public's continued good mood and high ratings of President Bush make more sense in the conventional economic framework.

Economic Outlook vs.
Presidential Approval and U.S. Satisfaction

An Untenable Balance?

If economic conditions fail to improve, will Americans' optimism about the economy continue? And without economic optimism to bolster consumer confidence, can the public continue to feel good about the state of the country and President Bush? The months ahead will help to answer these questions.

One important issue to factor in, of course, is the war on terrorism. Americans may continue to rally around the country and the president -- delivering high ratings to both -- regardless of the economy, if they continue to feel it is the patriotic thing to do in a time of national crisis. The true test of this explanation for continued public satisfaction with the president and state of the country will come when and if economic optimism starts to dwindle.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,012 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 6-9, 2002. 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%. 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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