Americans say they’re glum about the state of the union. But are they really?
As President Biden prepares for the State of the Union address he’s scheduled to deliver on Tuesday, Americans are in a sour mood, dissatisfied with the direction of the country and generally pessimistic about its prospects.
Or are they?
A lot of polling evidence says so: Gallup’s long-standing gauge of whether people are “in general ... satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States,” for example, currently stands at one of the lowest points the firm has measured — 22% satisfied, roughly comparable to the levels measured before Presidents Carter and George H.W. Bush lost their reelection campaigns.
An NBC News poll found 71% of Americans saying that the country was “off on the wrong track,” and when respondents were asked to give one word or a short phrase to “describe how you feel about where America is headed in the next year,” the most common response was “downhill.”
The answers were “the most negative we’ve seen in 13 years of asking this question,” reported pollsters at Public Opinion Strategies, the Republican half of the bipartisan pair of firms that conduct the survey.
That would seem to suggest big problems for Biden in the reelection campaign he’s expected to announce shortly after next week’s speech.
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Watch what they do
If you watch what Americans do, rather than what they say, the public mood appears significantly less grumpy.
Consider, for example: The country just conducted a midterm election in which the president’s party not only held losses in the House to far fewer than the historic average, but also gained a seat in the Senate, won control of four additional state legislative chambers and picked up two governorships — results that bested those of any party in power since President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s era.
Democrats owe some of that success to poor candidates on the Republican side. Not all, however: Incumbents of both parties did very well in 2022. For the first time since 1914, for example, not a single incumbent senator lost.
None of that is consistent with an electorate in a deeply unhappy, throw-the-bums-out mood.
What is consistent is the overwhelming influence of partisanship on how Americans see the world: Republicans feel the country is on the wrong track because a Democrat sits in the White House. Democrats have grown somewhat more gloomy since November because Republicans now control the House.
Real-world concerns matter, too, of course. Inflation caused many families’ standard of living to drop last year, and we shouldn’t discount the trauma of a pandemic that has caused some 1.3 million excess deaths in the country since 2020. But that discontent is shaped — and in many cases amplified — by people’s fear of what the other party might do.
“In our uber-polarized political environment, everyone is afraid to lose. But, no one thinks they are winning either,” Amy Walter, editor in chief of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said on Twitter, commenting on the NBC poll result.
A similar disconnect between sentiments and actions shows up in measures of the economy. A recent CBS News poll found, for example, that 59% of Americans said they believe the economy is getting worse, compared with 18% who said it is improving and 23% who said it is holding steady. Asked about current economic conditions, 28% said they were at least “fairly good,” but 36% called them fairly bad and 30% very bad.
Those findings came before Friday’s monthly jobs report showed that employers added just over half a million jobs to the economy in January and the unemployment rate dropped to the lowest level in 50 years, even as inflation continues to subside. But even before that news, consumers had only slightly reduced their spending in recent months, despite repeated interest-rate hikes by the Federal Reserve that are designed to tamp down inflation in part by reducing consumer demand.
Here, too, partisanship has shaped the response: Among Republicans, 82% called the economy bad; among Democrats, about half that many did. On the question of the economy’s future, about a third of Democrats expected conditions to worsen, while a third thought they were improving. Among Republicans, pessimism outnumbered optimism by 5 to 1.
There’s a “performative” aspect to the way people answer questions about the economy, noted Carola Binder, an economist at Haverford College who has studied the interaction of partisanship and views of the economy. When asked about the economy, many people respond with “a vote of confidence” or the opposite toward the party in power.
Partisanship’s effect on how people view the country isn’t a new phenomenon. What is new is the magnitude of its impact.
“Partisan gaps seem to be widening” on economic views, Binder said, and “that makes it challenging to interpret the data compared to decades ago.”
To put that another way, polls of economic sentiment — or of conditions in general — don’t predict elections the way they once did. Levels of public discontent that meant deep trouble for presidents in a previous era now send a more ambiguous signal.
The same holds true for the standard question that asks whether the public approves of how the president is doing his job. That measure once showed vertiginous swings: President George W. Bush soared as high as 86% approval in Gallup’s measurements after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, then plummeted to 25% approval toward the end of his tenure. President Clinton dropped to 37% approval early in his tenure, but rose to 69% six years later.
For the three most recent presidents, by contrast, approval ratings have been much stickier: They’ve consistently received almost no approval from the other party but have seldom lost support from their own partisans. After an initial honeymoon, approval ratings for President Obama moved in a narrow band for most of his tenure. That pattern held even more true for President Trump: Uniquely among presidents, he never achieved 50% approval, at the same time, his standing only rarely dropped below 40%.
Biden has experienced the Obama pattern — a brief honeymoon, after which approval dropped into the 40s, where it has stuck. The recent attention to classified documents found at his home and former office has not lowered his approval, but neither has the easing of inflation helped it much.
What potentially can help Biden is how Americans perceive his opposition. A CNN poll released this week found that just 27% of Americans said Republican leaders in the House were aiming at the right priorities; 73% said the GOP leaders weren’t paying enough attention to the country’s top problems.
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A new Pew Research Center survey found that 65% of Americans said they feared Republicans will “focus too much on investigating the Biden administration” — a priority stressed by GOP leaders such as Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). Among Republicans, however, 56% said they feared their party would not focus enough on investigating Biden, a keen illustration of the conflicting pressures that McCarthy faces.
Expect Biden and his aides to continue to push on that weak point, emphasizing their opposition to unpopular ideas coming from the Republican right wing, including proposals to scale back Social Security and Medicare benefits, impose a nationwide ban on abortions or to abolish income taxes and replace them with a huge, new national sales tax.
In 2020, Biden won largely by running as “not Trump.” In 2024, he may yet have the chance to reprise that theme. If not, running as “not the GOP Congress” could be just enough.
The California Senate race
A week after Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank announced that he would run for the Senate seat held by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the race has heated up significantly. As Seema Mehta reported, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco announced Thursday that she would endorse Schiff so long as Feinstein doesn’t seek reelection. The 89-year-old Feinstein is not expected to run again but has said she won’t make an announcement before the spring. Along with Pelosi, Schiff also announced the support of 20 additional current and former California members of Congress, including Reps. Ted Lieu of Torrance, Brad Sherman of Northridge and Eric Swalwell of Dublin and former Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles.
Mark Barabak also looked at the race in his column, assessing what he expects will be a rompin’, stompin’ contest to succeed Feinstein.
Meanwhile, the race is on for the congressional seats that Schiff, Rep. Katie Porter of Irvine and other Senate candidates will be leaving. Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta look at the candidates springing up to run in Schiff’s heavily Democratic district and in Porter’s closely divided Orange County one. In both, months of private discussions to gauge support and size up potential rivals are now bursting into public view. The same holds for Rep. Barbara Lee‘s district in Oakland. Here’s a list of the likely congressional contenders so far.
The latest from the campaign trail
— In 2018, when she was still a member of the Democratic Party, Kyrsten Sinema ran her Senate campaign as a self-described “Arizona Independent,” a distinction that helped her become the first Democrat to win the seat in three decades. Five years later, Arit John reported, progressives are betting that Arizona has moved far enough to the left that Democrats don’t need to rely on an iconoclast like Sinema to win. Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego launched a campaign for the seat last week, painting the race as a choice between an inaccessible incumbent beholden to special interests and a challenger who would be a lobbyist for working families.
— Congress must act to pass national police reform, Vice President Kamala Harris told mourners at the Wednesday funeral of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after being beaten bloody by Memphis police officers last month. As Erin Logan and Libor Jany reported, Harris’ trip to the Southern city came five days after Memphis officials released nearly one hour of videos showing officers punching and kicking Nichols after a traffic stop. Nichols died at a local hospital three days later.
The latest from Washington
— Former U.S. Atty. Gen. William Barr on Wednesday stood by his 2019 appointment of prosecutor John H. Durham to investigate the origins of the inquiry into the 2016 Trump presidential campaign’s connections to Russia, and defended his close interactions with Durham during the inquiry. As Laurel Rosenhall and Sarah D. Wire reported, Barr’s comments marked the first time he has spoken to the media since the New York Times reported last week that he pressured Durham to find flaws in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III‘s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Barr spoke to a Times reporter after a speech at the California News Publishers Assn. meeting in Sacramento.
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— House Republicans narrowly voted Thursday to oust Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota from the Foreign Affairs Committee, a move that follows Speaker McCarthy’s removal of Schiff and Swalwell from the Intelligence Committee last month, Nolan D. McCaskill reported. The resolution to remove Omar passed on a 218-211 party-line vote, with one member voting present. Omar, who is Black and a Muslim, said she was targeted because of her race and religion. She insisted she will not be silenced.
The latest from California
— Five months after a high-profile gun-control bill died amid Democratic infighting in Sacramento, California lawmakers are trying to revive the legislation to strengthen the state’s restrictions on who can carry loaded firearms in public, Hannah Wiley reported. The bill aims to limit the right to carry a concealed weapon in public while staying within the limits set last year by the Supreme Court. It includes a lengthy list of so-called sensitive places where firearms would be prohibited, including government buildings and schools, medical facilities, public transit, places of worship, parks, playgrounds and bars. And it requires a robust licensing protocol for local officials — largely sheriffs’ departments — to follow when issuing permits.
— Fresh polling data show that California voters probably will support the new gun-control plans, George Skelton wrote in his column. Twice as many likely voters think it’s more important to control gun ownership than it is to protect gun rights, according to a survey released Wednesday by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
— L.A. City Councilmember Kevin De León faces almost certain defeat if a recall ever makes it to voters, based on the results of a Los Angeles Times poll released last week. But, as Gustavo Arellano wrote in his column, recall backers’ attempts have floundered so far. They have until March 31 to collect 20,437 valid signatures — 15% of registered voters in District 14. But their GoFundMe has raised only a little more than $1,000 so far — a pittance in politics. Instead of assisting this effort, many progressives have kept it at arm’s length while mulling their own attempt.
— Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles leaders lambasted Mayor Karen Bass’ decision to greenlight a second term for Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore, describing the move as a betrayal, Julia Wick reported. The Los Angeles Police Commission unanimously approved a second term for Moore on Tuesday, a day after Bass expressed support for the move in a letter to the board. As mayor, Bass wields considerable power over the Police Department and its chief.
— For the 16 years James Mark Rippee lived on the streets of the Bay Area town of Vacaville, his sisters Catherine Rippee-Hanson and Linda Privatte unsuccessfully begged politicians, bureaucrats and medical professionals to give their schizophrenic baby brother the help he so clearly needed — but didn’t want, Anita Chabria wrote in her column. Their advocacy made Rippee possibly the most famous homeless man in California. But it did no good. In late November, Rippee was dumped at a hospital in the middle of the night gasping for breath, still too deep in his severe mental illness to understand he needed medical care. He died a few days later at the age of 59. Officially, he was killed by pneumonia and sepsis that led to organ failure, but Rippee-Hanson is clear that the real cause is the ugly fight between civil libertarians and families like hers over when it is fair and necessary to intervene in the life of someone with serious mental illness.
— Susan Bushnell was in a hurry when a man, clipboard in hand, approached her outside a Walmart Supercenter in Vista, Calif., one afternoon in September. The man asked Bushnell to sign a petition as she wrangled her fussing 5-year-old daughter into a shopping cart. He said the petition would help to raise wages for fast-food workers in California. As Suhauna Hussain reported, that wasn’t true. The petition was part of an effort to kill a newly approved law that could bring significant wage increases for California’s fast-food workers. Bushnell is among 14 voters interviewed by The Times who say petition circulators for the ballot measure lied to them about what they were signing.
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