Washington Post-ABC News poll

U.S. Concern Over Economy Is Highest in Years

President Bush discusses the 2009 budget following a cabinet meeting Monday at the White House.
By Michael Abramowitz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, February 4, 2008; Page A01

Public views of the national economy are now more negative than at any point in nearly 15 years, and few people believe that the kind of stimulus plan being devised by President Bush and Congress is enough to stave off or soften a recession, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

More than eight in 10 Americans describe the economy as "not so good" or "poor," and nearly six in 10 believe the United States is already in a recession. While voters appear more sanguine about their own circumstances, three in 10 are now pessimistic about their financial prospects over the coming year, double the percentage holding a dour outlook in December 2006.

The new poll, conducted Jan. 30-Feb. 1, shows how thoroughly the souring economy has overtaken the war in Iraq as the electorate's principal concern. Thirty-nine percent of all Americans now cite the economy and jobs as the No. 1 issue in the presidential campaign, up 10 percentage points in the past three weeks; more than twice as many people now highlight the economy as call Iraq the top issue. No other concern reaches double digits.

These assessments follow months of steadily worsening news about the economy that could bring the country full circle to the downturn that took hold at the beginning of the Bush administration in 2001. A financial crisis that began in the U.S. markets over home mortgage defaults has steadily spread since last fall, and on Wednesday, the first day of the Post-ABC poll, the government reported that the nation had experienced its weakest period of economic growth since 2002.

On Friday, the Labor Department said the economy lost jobs in January, the first time in 53 months that had happened, putting new pressure on Bush and Congress to take action to stimulate the economy. The Federal Reserve Board has slashed key interest rates in an effort to keep the economy from sliding into a long, debilitating recession, which is defined as at least two consecutive quarters of decline in gross domestic product.

Only 19 percent of Americans now rate the nation's economy positively, the fewest to say so since June 1993, when the Clinton administration was grappling with a struggling economy. On the eve of the last midterm elections, 55 percent assessed the state of the national economy as "excellent" or "good." Now, about nine in 10 Democrats and independents give the economy a negative review; nearly two-thirds of Republicans agree.

The deteriorating economy has dramatically shifted the focus of policymakers in Washington and candidates on the campaign trail. Bush, whose language on the economy has become progressively more sober over the past several months, is pressing the Senate to finish work on a stimulus plan he drew up with House leaders.

The legislation, approved by the House last week, would pump $146 billion into the economy, much of it through checks from the government to individuals and families, and tax incentives for businesses to invest in plants and equipment. The Senate is developing a rival plan offering $157 billion in stimulus measures.

But the Post-ABC poll suggests little confidence that such plans will have the intended effect. Only about three in 10 think government checks of several hundred dollars to most workers and new corporate incentives will be enough to avoid or mitigate a recession; two-thirds doubt it will work.

About three-quarters of Democrats and independents are skeptical that such a stimulus package would soften the slowdown. Republicans divide evenly -- 47 percent think it would, 47 percent think it would not.

Asked what they would do with the extra money, 27 percent said they would put it in the bank, 26 percent would pay bills, 20 percent would spend it and 5 percent would pay down debt. One respondent offered, "I'd go buy a hamburger."

The poll suggests voters are evenly divided about the economy's longer-term prospects, with half saying the United States is in a long-term decline and half saying the fundamentals of the economic system are basically solid. And although voters have become somewhat more pessimistic about their own financial situations, two-thirds are optimistic about what the next 12 months have in store for them and their families.

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