Would you say this was a good year for the United States? For decades, Americans’ sense of how their nation was doing was closely linked to the economy. Through Democratic and Republican presidencies, through divided and unified sessions of Congress, Americans were consistent. When they saw jobs and GDP growing, an increasing number of people told pollsters that the country was headed in the right direction. And typically, they gave credit to the president.
But in 2017, a highly upbeat economic outlook failed to elevate America’s generally pessimistic mood. Overwhelmingly, Americans have told us and other pollsters that they’re happy with the economy — and miserable about their country. It appears that polarization, frustration with Washington and, most of all, antipathy toward President Trump have severed the connection between economic progress and contentment.
Ask Americans to size up 2017, and more than 6 in 10 say the economy had a good year, according to a new Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll. That’s in line with trends in the Consumer Confidence Index , which is up significantly since October 2016, growing to its highest level in 17 years in November . And it reflects a year when unemployment declined to just over 4 percent and gross domestic product growth topped 3 percent in two consecutive quarters.
Yet those are not the first things that come to Americans’ minds when they’re asked about 2017. “Chaotic” was the most common one-word summation of the year, volunteered by 5 percent of adults in our late-November poll. Roughly four times as many people — 53 to 13 percent — described 2017 with a negative word than with a positive one. “Great” and “good” made the top 10, with 2 percent apiece, but so did six other razzes: “crazy,” “challenging,” “tumultuous,” “horrendous,” “disappointing” and “disastrous.” A sense of action and upheaval was also clear among the 35 percent of respondents who used neutral or ambiguous terms, with “interesting,” “hectic,” “eventful” and “busy” all making the top 20.
In response to a direct question, almost 7 in 10 Americans said it was a good year for them personally. But a 58 percent majority said 2017 was a bad year for the country overall. Majorities similarly deemed it a bad year for America’s role in the world, race relations, media coverage, the U.S. political system and the president. Given those sentiments, it’s not surprising that a 66 percent majority indicated that the country is going in the wrong direction, according to a Marist College poll last month — up seven points from the eve of Trump’s election.
Trump has pointed to the strength of the economy as evidence he’s doing a good job. “The reason our stock market is so successful is because of me,” he told reporters last month. “I’ve always been great with money, I’ve always been great with jobs, that’s what I do. And I’ve done it well, I’ve done it really well, much better than people understand, and they understand I’ve done well.”
His supporters and fellow partisans largely agree with him. The share of Republicans saying the country is going in the right direction rocketed from 8 percent in November 2016 to 59 percent last month. And a Post-ABC News poll last month found more than 8 in 10 Republicans rating Trump positively for handling the economy. “It’s taken awhile to get momentum going,” said Russell Padina, a Republican from Columbia Falls, Mont., who is among the voters The Post has followed this year. “But I still feel really good about the things that have been happening.”
Most Americans don’t seem to make that connection, though, giving Trump poor approval ratings all year. One week into his presidency, Gallup found that 45 percent of Americans approved of his job performance, the lowest starting mark for any president since the dawn of scientific polling. Trump’s popularity worsened through the year, falling to lows of 35 percent in August, late October and early December. It had ticked up to 36 percent by Dec. 10 — significantly below the approval ratings of the past three presidents at the same point in their terms.
The failure of an improving economy to help Trump overcome negative job ratings and boost Americans’ overall outlook may stem from several factors. Americans had high hopes for Trump on the economy before his inauguration, with 61 percent in a Post-ABC News poll expecting him to do an excellent or good job on the issue. But by early this month, 42 percent approved of his handling of the economy while 52 percent disapproved, according to a CBS News poll. President Barack Obama left office with high ratings on the economy, and a November Quinnipiac University poll also found about as many registered voters saying Obama was responsible for its current condition than Trump was — similar to the lingering blame George W. Bush received for the 2008 economic downturn.
But noneconomic factors may be even more important. When a November Gallup poll asked Americans to name the nation’s No. 1 problem, 15 percent mentioned an economic issue, far lower than the majorities who did so during Obama’s first term. Among the 85 percent who cited noneconomic problems, the most common was “dissatisfaction with government/poor leadership,” named by 23 percent, followed by “race relations/racism,” “health care” and “unifying the country.” While these concerns are not Trump-specific, he has faced criticism related to each. Most Americans gave Trump low marks on his temperament and his response to the Charlottesville protests by white nationalists. And they opposed his attempts to repeal Obamacare. “Trump has created an atmosphere where it’s okay to spout your hate,” said Floyd Grabiel, a self-identified Rockefeller Republican and retired lawyer from Edina, Minn. “Everything seems to be spinning so fast, and Trump aggravates that and tweets something.”
Trump’s appointment of Neil M. Gorsuch to the Supreme Court at the beginning of his term stands out as a significant and popular move that also garnered strong support from his political base. But across a range of other areas, the controversies surrounding Trump and his policies appear to have overwhelmed economic optimism when it comes to assessing his performance and the direction of the country. Here’s where Americans stood on the major debates of 2017.
Reining in immigration was a central tenet of Trump’s presidential campaign. But polling this year suggested that while most Americans support deporting undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes, a majority might react negatively to much more restrictive immigration policies. Seventy-one percent of Americans said immigration was good for the country in a June Gallup poll . Sixty percent of adults support allowing undocumented immigrants to stay and apply for citizenship, according to CBS News polling. And, notable in light of Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric: Views toward Muslims have been warming. On the Pew Research Center’s 100-point “feeling thermometer,” attitudes toward Muslims rose from 40 degrees in 2014 to 48 degrees this year.
Dig down a bit, though, and you’ll find a marked partisan split. For instance, Democrats were more than twice as likely as Republicans to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (79 to 36 percent). And Republicans were far chillier in their attitudes toward Muslims than were Democrats.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Trump would try to make good on his immigration-related campaign promises — and that those moves would be popular with his base but unpopular with the public at large.
An April CBS News poll found that 53 percent of Americans opposed Trump’s travel ban, described in the survey as “temporarily preventing people entering from the U.S. from some majority-Muslim countries.” The ban played well in Trump’s own party, though: Seventy-two percent of Republicans favored it, while three-quarters of Democrats and more than half of independents opposed it.
Trump has maintained that he has popular backing for his proposal to build a wall along the Mexican border (and make Mexico pay for it). “People want the border wall,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press. But polls this year have consistently shown that roughly 6 in 10 Americans don’t want it .
A majority of Americans have supported Trump’s push to deport large numbers of undocumented immigrants with criminal records — 72 percent in a January Post-ABC poll — and an even larger majority this fall favored requiring employers to verify workers’ legal status. But there has been strong opposition to the administration’s canceling of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that allows some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to stay. A Post-ABC poll this fall found that more than 8 in 10 support keeping DACA. And on this issue, Americans largely agree across party lines: Ninety-seven percent of Democrats support the program, along with 86 percent of independents and 75 percent of Republicans.
On health care
Health care was a primary concern for Americans in 2017, at some points eclipsing traditionally dominant economic matters — with concern rising in tandem with Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Much of the anxiety centered on cost and access. But Americans were also worried about addiction and abuse. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults said the opioid epidemic worsened over the past year, according to PBS NewsHour-Marist polling.
Republicans’ repeal proposals struggled to attract popular (and congressional) backing, while at the same time support for Obamacare grew to its highest levels. In the summer of 2016, about 4 in 10 adults were favorable toward the law, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Support rose to a high of 52 percent this August and stood at 50 percent in November. A September Post-ABC poll found 33 percent preferring Republicans’ replacement plan while 56 preferred to keep Obamacare. While Republicans failed to pass a full-scale replacement of the law, they included a repeal of its individual mandate in the tax bill expected to pass before the end of the year. This requirement for most Americans to buy health insurance or pay a fine was among the least-popular parts of the ACA.
With Obamacare under threat, a growing number of Democratic leaders embraced a national single-payer health-care system. Polls by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Pew Research Center suggested that support for a national health-care plan was higher in 2017 than in previous years, and an even larger share of Americans liked the idea of “Medicare for all.” But the Kaiser poll found that support was malleable, with opposition rising sharply when respondents heard arguments that the plan might require people to pay higher taxes or that it would give the government too much control over health care.
On the Russia investigation
Americans reacted to intelligence reports about Russia’s attempted election meddling and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation with steady concern and sharp criticism of Trump and his campaign associates, all colored heavily by partisanship. A November Quinnipiac University poll found 46 percent of registered voters nationally saying Russian interference in the 2016 election is a “very important” issue, including 70 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of independents, but only 13 percent of Republicans.
Americans were broadly suspicious of Russia’s intentions in 2016 but divided in judging the impact of Russian meddling and the involvement of Trump’s campaign. In July, 6 in 10 Americans thought the Russian government had tried to influence the outcome of the 2016 election — as the intelligence community has assessed and Trump has questioned. Less than half of those polled, 44 percent, thought Trump benefitted from Russian efforts, according to Post-ABC polling.
Mueller maintained broad support even after the announcement of the first indictments — against onetime Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and others — with 58 percent approving of Mueller’s handling of the investigation and 68 percent approving of the charges against Manafort in a November Post-ABC poll. Just under half said it was likely that Trump himself had committed a crime in connection with Russian attempts to interfere with the election, though most of this group said this was only their suspicion and didn’t see any solid evidence.
On race relations
In Post-SurveyMonkey polling last month, 82 percent of Americans said it was a bad year for race relations. And that was one point on which pessimism transcended partisan divisions.
Americans grew sharply more concerned about racial issues after August’s white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville that turned violent and left one woman dead. Gallup found that the share of Americans volunteering “race relations” or “racism” as the country’s most important issue tripled from 4 percent in July to 12 percent in September. A Post-ABC poll a week after the rally found that twice as many Americans disapproved as approved of Trump’s response — when he hesitated to single out the white-nationalist protesters, saying there were “some very fine people on both sides.” A 42 percent plurality said Trump put neo-Nazis and white supremacists on equal footing with those who oppose them. The poll found public uncertainty about the alt-right movement, with 39 percent saying the group holds neo-Nazi views, 21 percent saying it does not and another 39 percent having no opinion. (Many in the small, far-right movement seek a whites-only state.)
The fall football season saw a dramatic expansion of Black Lives Matter protests by National Football League players. Kneeling during the national anthem was unpopular with the public in 2016, but Trump’s criticism of the protests this year was also unpopular — and may have boosted the protests’ support. An HBO Real Sports/Marist poll in October found 47 percent saying pro sports leagues such as the NFL should require players to stand during the national anthem, while 51 percent said they should not — a flip from 2016, when the public supported requiring players to stand by a nine-point margin. In a separate question, the public split 49 to 46 percent on whether professional athletes protesting an issue by not standing for the national anthem is disrespectful to the freedoms the anthem represents. In contrast to that even divide on the anthem protests, a September CNN poll found 60 percent of adults saying Trump did the wrong thing in criticizing NFL athletes who protested by kneeling.
There have been more than 330 mass shootings since the beginning of 2017, including the Oct. 1 Las Vegas massacre that killed 58 people and injured 546, and the Nov. 6 shooting in Sutherland Springs, Tex., that killed 26 churchgoers. And through the year, public opinion on guns has remained relatively stable. A slim majority voiced a preference for gun control over gun rights in April, according to the Pew Research Center, and two polls this fall suggested that support for stricter gun laws grew somewhat in the wake of those high-profile shootings.
A CNN poll from October found more than 6 in 10 Americans favored a ban on “bump fire stocks,” an accessory used in the Las Vegas shooting that allows semi-automatic guns to fire more like automatic weapons. And a Pew poll from March found that a 53 percent majority of Americans opposed allowing people to carry concealed guns in more places. Congress has not yet taken action to make bump stocks illegal. This month, the House passed a bill to loosen concealed-carry laws, making permits valid across state lines; the Senate is unlikely to pass it.
On sexual harassment and assault
After allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and other high-profile figures, a 64 percent majority of Americans said harassment of women was a “serious problem” in the workplace in an October Post-ABC poll, up from 47 percent in 2011. The survey showed a wide and growing partisan divide on the concern, with about 8 in 10 Democrats and two-thirds of independents calling sexual harassment a serious problem, but just over 4 in 10 Republicans saying the same. While Weinstein was a major Democratic donor, Republicans’ skepticism could be related to doubts about accusations of harassment by Trump.
November’s allegations that Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore made advances toward teenage girls while he was in his 30s, reported by The Post, rocked the contest and contributed to his narrow loss to Democrat Doug Jones on Tuesday. The network exit poll found a slight 52 percent majority of voters saying the accusations of sexual misconduct were true, and 89 percent of this group supported Jones.
On America’s role in the world
In the Post-SurveyMonkey poll, 64 percent of respondents said 2017 was a bad year for America’s place in the world. And in a November Post-ABC poll, about twice as many people said America’s leadership in the world has gotten weaker under Trump than stronger (53 vs. 26 percent). That’s against the backdrop of an administration that has pursued an “America first” strategy and intentionally disengaged — cutting the diplomatic corps, pulling away from multilateral trade pacts, threatening to scuttle the Iran nuclear deal and becoming the only country not participating in the Paris climate accord. Trump’s positions may have produced something of a counter-reaction. A majority of Americans in 2017 said international trade is good for creating jobs in the United States, according to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs , whereas a year ago, a majority said it was not. The withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, coming in a year of extreme weather and when concern about global warming hit record highs, was opposed by 59 percent of Americans in a June Post-ABC poll.
At the same time, the administration has expanded U.S. military commitments — though without much debate. An August TIPP/Investor’s Business Daily poll found a slight 51 percent majority of adults supporting the decision to send additional troops to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations, while 41 percent opposed doing so. But by 61 to 30 percent, more Americans said “good diplomacy” is the best way to ensure peace than said the same of “military strength” in a June Pew Research Center survey.
So are Americans doomed to look back with disgust at the end of each year? In 2016, as you’ll no doubt recall, “worst year ever” was a common refrain. And 2017 doesn’t seem any more popular. Facebook’s year-in-review videos, compiling its algorithms’ best guess at the top moments from each user’s feed, have been met with a collective groan. Apparently no one wants to see a montage of posts about floods, fires, mass shootings, “me too” declarations and government moves they didn’t like.
Elections this fall point to one way Americans’ mood could shift in the coming year. If Democrats succeed in riding the anti-Trump sentiment evident in the Virginia gubernatorial and Alabama Senate elections to take control of the U.S. House or Senate in 2018’s midterm elections, Americans who are critical of Trump may grow more positive about the country’s direction. If the Post-SurveyMonkey poll had been conducted after Alabama’s election Tuesday, Democrats might have expressed at least somewhat more optimism than they did in late November. A significant victory for Democrats could be canceled out by a reciprocal rise in pessimism among Trump’s base, though those Republicans are likely to stay relatively optimistic while he is in the White House.
It’s far less clear whether the gap in national optimism will close between Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, Trump supporters and opponents. The divisions along these lines have been growing for decades, but the persistent gulf in 2017, even as the economy improves, highlights the power of political attachments to color our view of the state of the union.