By Rich Miller
(c) 2010 Bloomberg News
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 12:04 AM
More than 50 percent of Americans say they are worse off now than they were two years ago when President Barack Obama took office, and two-thirds believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a Bloomberg National Poll shows.
The survey, conducted Dec. 4-7, finds that 51 percent of respondents think their situation has deteriorated, compared with 35 percent who say they're doing better. The balance isn't sure. Americans have grown more downbeat about the country's future in just the last couple of months, the poll shows. The pessimism cuts across political parties and age groups, and is common to both sexes.
The negative sentiment may cast a pall over the holiday shopping season, according to the poll. A plurality of those surveyed -- 46 percent -- expects to spend less this year than last; only 12 percent anticipate spending more. Holiday sales rose by just under a half percent last year after falling by almost 4 percent in 2008.
"It's definitely different this year than it's been," says poll respondent Larry Deyo, a 38-year-old father of two in Marlton, New Jersey. "I can't really do too much with spending." He says he lost his job at a kitchen and bath design center when the company closed, and he's now working at a Home Depot Inc. store with a "significant decrease" in pay.
It was President Ronald Reagan who popularized the question, "Are you better off or worse off than you were four years ago" in his 1980 campaign against Jimmy Carter.
Obama's numbers in the poll, given the context of an economy that is struggling to recover from the longest recession since the Great Depression and the experience of past presidents, aren't so bad.
As Reagan approached the end of his second year in office, his numbers were more negative than Obama's in this survey. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in Oct. 1982, 61 percent of Americans said things were worse and 33 percent said they had improved. Reagan won re-election in a landslide in 1984. In the final months of George W. Bush's presidency, as the financial crisis intensified, Americans said by a 2-to-1 margin that their financial situation had deteriorated, compared with a year earlier.
Americans in the poll also oppose Republican lawmakers' calls to extend tax cuts for upper-income Americans beyond the end of 2010. Obama reluctantly agreed to a two-year extension of those cuts as part of a compromise package that also retained breaks for the middle class.
Sixty-six percent say the nation is headed in the wrong direction. That's up from 62 percent who felt that way in an October poll and is the worst reading since the Bloomberg National Poll began in September 2009.
Unemployment and jobs are the most important issue facing the country now, the poll finds. Fifty percent of those surveyed identified joblessness as their top concern, twice the number who chose the federal budget deficit and government spending.
Members of Obama's Democratic Party are about evenly split on the question of whether they are doing better than two years ago. Republicans and political independents are more downbeat. More than 60 percent of Republicans say they're doing worse under Obama. Just over 50 percent of political independents feel that way, compared with a third who say their situation has improved.
Obama, 49, inherited an economy in deep crisis. While it has started to recover -- showing 3.2 percent growth over the past year -- unemployment has remained high. Joblessness rose to a seven-month high of 9.8 percent in November, significantly above the 7.4 percent rate that prevailed in December 2008, the month before Obama was inaugurated.
The stock market has performed much better. The Standard and Poor's 500 Index has risen more than 50 percent since Obama was sworn in Jan. 20, 2009.
"After looking at all the politicians and all the policies, they're not geared toward Americans. They're geared toward the corporations," says Ken Cmar, a 45-year-old poll respondent residing in Crystal River, Florida.
He says his business aligning wheels on vehicles has shrunk as trucking companies and municipalities with bus fleets have cut back. "It's that trickle-down economic thing and I'm at the wrong end," Cmar says.
By age group, only the young -- those under 35, a core constituency for Obama in his presidential bid -- consider themselves better off than they were two years ago.
The young often show a greater "sense that things are getting better for them than we see for older respondents," says J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm that conducted the nationwide survey. "Maybe that is the sweet naivete of youth or, more likely, they are building their careers and things are, in fact, getting better for them."
While Democrats and political independents agree that unemployment is the top issue, Republicans are about evenly split between jobs and the budget deficit, which totaled $1.29 trillion in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30.
"The deficit is outrageous," says poll respondent Lisa Brandel, a 36-year-old free-lance writer in Bellefontaine, Ohio. "But the root of the problem is that we need more jobs. If we get better employment, more people will be paying taxes and the deficit will go down."
On the tax cuts, the survey conducted before, during and after the negotiations between the White House and congressional Republicans this week, shows that only a third of Americans support keeping the lower rates for the highest earners.
Another third say they want only the tax cuts for the middle class to be extended, while more than a fourth say all the tax cuts should be allowed to expire Dec. 31, as scheduled.
The agreement Obama announced Dec. 6 would temporarily sustain the tax reductions for all income levels. The president said the compromise was needed to break a deadlock with Republicans who vowed to block tax cuts for middle-income Americans if those for individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000 weren't extended, too.
The Bloomberg National survey of 1,000 U.S. adults has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.