According to the Roper Organization, which formulated the question back in 1971, it is recognized by many experts as "the best single measure there is of public well-being."
But to a newspaper columnist struggling to make sense of the latest responses, it is a frustratingly imprecise measure of Lord knows what.
Here's the question: "Do you feel things in this country are generally going in the right direction today, or do you feel that things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?"
Close to half of all those who answered the question during face-to-face interviews in February like the direction the country is headed -- the first time, says Roper, that the balance of opinion has been positive rather than negative.
The Reagan administration must be ecstatic, though it might be as hard- pressed as I am to know precisely what it is ecstatic about. The ascendancy of conservative Republicanism? Hardly. The previous high mark (41 percent positive) was in polling done in February 1977, a month after Jimmy Carter moved into the White House. The low- water mark was October 1974, during the Ford presidency. That was the month when John Ehrlichman, Bob Haldeman and John Mitchell went on trial for their Watergate offenses and when 75 percent of America thought we were on "the wrong track."
It is interesting, though not particularly enlightening, to search the newspaper headlines during the polling periods for clues as to our sense of the country's direction. Why was the country relatively pessimistic (23 percent positive) in January 1971? Was it the fact that the Vietnam war was still going on, with 44,000 Americans already dead? The fact that that was the month Lt. William LCalley went on trial for the My Lai massacre? The fact that we were still wrestling with the unemployment-inflation dilemma while confronting a declining gross national product?
Did our relative despondency (20 percent positive) in February 1979, have anything to do with the presence in Washington of 3,000 outraged farmers demanding higher price supports? Why were we so much more satisfied with the direction things were going in February 1985 (49 percent positive), than in February 1983 (34 percent positive)?
The Roper Organization itself doesn't offer much enlightenment, aside from noting that the question is "highly responsive to people's economic well-being." It notes, for instance, that the highest marks in the latest poll came from executives and professionals (62 percent positive) and those who earn more than $35,000 a year (63 percent positive), while the lowest grades were from blacks (68 percent negative), rural residents (57 percent negative) and those who earn less than $15,000 a year (48 percent negative).
The trouble with the question is that it doesn't differentiate between our assessments of America's political leadership, its status in the world, the presence or absence of military conflict and the state of our personal finances. It's like asking a friend how things are going without specifying the "things" you have in mind. A positive response can be triggered by anything from a pay raise to the election of his favorite candidate to the news that his wife doesn't have cancer after all.
What is to be made of the fact that more Republicans than conservatives (70 percent to 57 percent) think things are going in the right direction?
The Roper Organization may think it has come up with one jim-dandy of a question. But if the idea was to provide useful information, they have "pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track."