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The Optimism Gap: Are Washington and the Public on the Same Track?

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Part of leadership is conveying an air of optimism and confidence. Any management book, any memoir by a general, politician or basketball coach will tell you that. But what does it mean when leaders are more optimistic than the people they're supposed to be leading?

That's certainly been the situation in Washington over the past year. As part of a project to track attitudes about the national debt, Public Agenda has been using a Harris Interactive survey to examine the views of "Beltway influencers" -- which include executive and legislative staff, media, and executives in nonprofits and interest groups who shape policy. And these policymakers are significantly more confident that the country is "moving in the right direction," as opposed to being "seriously off on the wrong track," than the general public.

About half of the leaders we've surveyed since March 2010 say the country's moving in the right direction (48 percent said this in our most recent round of research, completed in April).

By contrast, 70 percent of the public told the CBS/New York Times survey in April that America is on the wrong track: a more than 20-point gap. What's more, this gap has widened: in February and October 2010, the CBS/Times survey (which uses the same wording as Harris) showed about six in 10 saying the nation's "seriously off on the wrong track."

The right direction/wrong track formulation has been around for decades now, and one reason why pollsters love it is that it's a gut-check question. You don't need to follow the news closely to answer it. Even the image is powerful and clear: is the country going off the rails or not?

Americans have always seen themselves as an optimistic nation. We've had generation gaps, credibility gaps, all kinds of divides between how leaders and experts look at problems compared to the public at large. But an optimism gap is something fundamental. There are multiple signs that the nation is in an uneasy mood, and has been for a while. The CBS/Times survey hasn't found a majority of the public saying we're moving in the right direction since 2003. Just last week, Gallup reported that fewer than half of Americans say young people today will have a better life than their parents, the first time that's happened in 30 years.

One possible reason is that the public sees a slipping of fortunes in their lives that they haven't seen before. In another Public Agenda survey, we found a significant number of Americans, even the four in 10 who say they're "struggling a lot" in the current economy, are more concerned about sliding down the ladder in the long term than about getting by today. They're more worried about paying for college and having a secure retirement than about paying the rent or mortgage in the short term. They also say that doing something about higher education costs, job training and preserving Social Security and Medicare would help them more than short-term fixes.

Another explanation may be about the leaders. President Obama likes to say "we are the people we have been waiting for," and people in Washington may take this to heart. Whatever their partisan differences, people believe they're inside the Beltway for a reason. They believe their policies are right and will work -- and if their party has been elected to office, they believe the public is behind them. This is just as true of Obama supporters as it is for the Tea Partiers. So if your side holds the reins of power -- and in a divided government both parties can make that claim -- then you've got reason for optimism. You might win. The world you're trying to create may still come to pass.

Plus, at least the Washington elites are at the table, and they generally understand the choices they face. That isn't always true of the public -- and that's not entirely the public's fault.

The problem is that the obsessive maneuvering, the bitter rhetoric, the obscure parliamentary tactics that are all part of "winning" the Beltway game don't look like progress to the public. They look confusing, off-putting, and not particularly relevant to what's worrying most Americans. At any given moment, it's very difficult for the average American who isn't obsessed with politics to figure out how any of this debate will really improve their lives. They don't get much help in sorting through the options before them, or the challenges the country faces. They're not sure whether a better world is on the way, because the way politicians and the media operate make it difficult to choose between different visions, or even see if what they're being offered is a better world at all.

That, in the end, may be the real threat in the optimism gap. It's another sign of a broader disconnect between leaders and the public. Leaders who can't make the public share their sense of optimism and promise may be managing the country, but they're not leading it. And unless those inside the Beltway do a better job of conveying why what they're doing matters -- why there's grounds for optimism -- then it's hard to see how that inside-the-Beltway sense of progress will carry over into outside the Beltway support.