More than four in ten Americans believe they are worse off economically than before President Obama took office, according to a Bloomberg National Poll published today, underscoring the degree to which a critical shortage of jobs has amplified the gloom hovering over the nation.
The poll, which surveyed Americans nationwide between June 17th and 20th, found that 44 percent of respondents view their economic prospects as even worse now than when Obama was inaugurated in early 2009, in the midst of the wrenching downturn known as the Great Recession, and only months after the collapse of major financial institutions. Only 34 percent of respondents disagreed with that proposition.
Public perceptions are of course fickle, laced with emotion and tainted by faulty memories, rendering dubious any relative assessment about different points in time. But the results amount to a sobering indication that the Obama administration confronts a deeply challenging political problem as it heads into next year's reelection campaign. Most of all, the poll underscores the degree to which the White House has failed to restore a sense of confidence to a beleaguered country.
According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, fewer than one-third of Americans believe national fortunes are heading in the right direction -- a smaller slice than at any time during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who saw unemployment soar to 10.8 percent, higher than it has ever been during the Obama presidency.
More broadly, deepening worries about the economy amount to an economic problem: Consumer spending comprises some 70 percent of American economic output. If ordinary people fear the economy will worsen or merely stagnate, they are likely to put off purchases, withholding their dollars from the economy. That makes employers even less likely to hire, cognizant that opportunities are slim. Such is the feedback loop that has assailed the economy for many months -- bad sentiments spawning bad news, reinforcing the bad sentiments, making households and businesses ever more reluctant to transact.
The unemployment rate remains high, reaching 9.1 percent last month, with Depression-era levels of joblessness affecting the African American community. Worst of all, the public is showing a profound lack of confidence that significant improvement lies ahead. Fewer than one in ten Americans thinks that the jobless rate will get below its pre-recession level of five percent in the next two years, according to the Bloomberg poll.
Given that 6.2 million people have been out of work for six months or longer, and given that millions more have stopped looking for employment, citing a lack of opportunities, the nation is likely to face increasingly uncomfortable strains. Jobless people are exhausting what savings remain, making retirement and adequate health care uncertain propositions, reinforcing the predilection to save and further limiting economic growth. The social safety net is under severe pressure, as millions of people rely upon food stamps and unemployment benefits as their only sustenance -- this, as Washington is consumed with debate over how to cut federal spending to diminish the budget deficit.
In part, the latest poll suggests that the Obama administration has done a poor job of public messaging, failing to convince the public that the $800 billion stimulus spending package unleashed early on has made a difference. Many economists argue that the spending has indeed prevented a chronically lean job market from getting even worse, but the administration has clouded that message with its rhetorical focus on cutting government spending. The public has absorbed the fact that the economy remains awful and has apparently pronounced the whole Obama economic policy a failure -- a hard thing to argue against in many communities, in which diminished expectations have insinuated themselves into every area of life.
Beyond the rhetoric, the poll offers the latest sign that the public is experiencing a different reality than the one parsed by elected officials in Washington. It will take more than well-articulated initiatives, targeted press releases, and spinning of data to dislodge the sense that the nation is in danger. It will take the one thing in most critically short supply: paychecks. How to make that happen is not a major talking point in Washington these days.