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27 Aug, 2011

State of the United States: Pew Report Shows Why “American Awakening” Is Overdue

Imtiaz Muqbil

Mired in wars, economic crises, budget deficits and the heavyweight responsibilities of global leadership, the American public is losing faith and trust in its political leaders, government and business corporations, according to the latest opinion poll survey results released by Pew Research Centre. Coming just a few weeks before the 10th anniversary commemoration of 9/11, the report offers much food for thought over the upcoming long Labour Day weekend about the state of the United States, and its future status in the emerging world order. As America’s global standing is not much better, the signs are growing of a long-overdue “American awakening” in the making.

Concludes the report, “The public is profoundly discontented with conditions in the country, its government, political leadership and several of its major institutions. Fully 79% are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country. Even more (86%) say they are frustrated or angry with the federal government. Favorable ratings for both political parties are in negative territory and have declined since the beginning of the year.”

Released on 25 August, the report’s analysis is based on telephone interviews conducted August 17-21, 2011, among a national sample of 1,509 adults 18 years of age or older living in the continental United States (905 respondents were interviewed on a landline telephone, and 604 were interviewed on a cell phone, including 268 who had no landline telephone). Curiously, the report did not get much global coverage in the mainstream media.

The full report can be downloaded free here.

The State of the United States

According to the report, the figures show the gloomiest economic outlook since the start of the economic downturn. 37% say economic conditions are only fair while 56% say they are poor. Poor ratings of the economy have jumped 10 points from June. 68% of Americans do not expect the economy to improve in the next year. 50% expect economic conditions to be the same as now in a year’s time and 18% expect conditions to be worse. Just 29% expect U.S. economic conditions to be better a year from now.

While the economy was clearly seen as in worse shape at times during late 2008 and early 2009, the public was far more optimistic about a turnaround at that time, the report says.

Decision Gridlock – To Cut Or to Spend?

Americans are now evenly divided over whether the federal government should prioritize spending to help the economy recover or reducing the budget deficit: 47% say spending to help the economy should be the higher priority, while 46% say reducing the budget deficit. In June, 52% viewed reducing the deficit as the higher priority compared with 42% who prioritized spending to help the economy. In February, the public was, as now, more evenly divided.

Satisfaction Remains Low

According to the report, just 17% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in the country today, while 79% are dissatisfied. These figures are unchanged from July before the debt-ceiling showdown and ensuing market fluctuations. Satisfaction is now at its lowest point since late 2008 – the year the Bush presidency ended and President Obama was elected on a platform of “change you can believe in.”

Barack Obama: Nice Guy, Poor President

Not surprisingly, there is a big difference between what Americans think of Barack Obama as a person and as a president. Personally, Americans continue to have positive impressions of Obama along most dimensions. Majorities say he stands up for what he believes in (71%), cares about people like them (63%), and most view him as a good communicator (75%), well-informed (63%) and trustworthy (59%). Public assessments of these traits are relatively unchanged in recent months.

As a president, however, it’s a different matter. About half (49%) of Americans now disapprove of the job Obama is doing, while just 43% approve. This is little changed from last month (48% disapprove, 44% approve), but reflects a substantial drop from the period following the killing of Osama bin Laden in May.

U.S. government – Anger Up, Trust Down

When asked to describe their feelings about the federal government, 86% say either that they are frustrated (60%) or angry (26%). Just 11% say they are basically content with the federal government, by far the lowest percentage in a measure that dates to 1997. The share of Americans who describe themselves as angry with the federal government has nearly doubled since March, from 14% to 26%, while those who say they are basically content has fallen by half, from 22% to 11%.

The report says that the current spike in public anger is notably broad-based. When anger rose to 20% in the fall of 2006, it was concentrated predominantly among liberal Democrats, with very few conservative Republicans expressing such strongly negative views. When anger rose to 23% in the fall of 2010, this pattern was reversed, with people on the right expressing the most anger.

But today, this emotion is more broadly distributed. There is certainly more anger among conservative Republicans (32% angry) than among liberal Democrats (12%). But compared with a year ago, the political gap has narrowed as anger has risen among Democrats and remained high among Republicans. Across these three periods independents have grown consistently angrier, from 21% in 2006 to 27% a year ago to 30% today.

Similarly, the report says, public trust in government, which had recovered slightly earlier this year, has once again returned to deeply negative territory. In the current survey, 80% say they trust the government to do what is right only some of the time or never. Just 19% say the government can be trusted just about always or most of the time. When this question was first asked on the American National Election Study in 1958 nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans said they always or mostly trusted the government to do what is right.

Across all updates of this question over the past 53 years by the ANES, Gallup, ABC/Washington Post, CBS/New York Times, CNN and Pew Research Center, the all time low mark for trust in government is 17%, measured by CBS and the New York Times in October 2008 and by Gallup in June 1994.

Politicians – Negative Views Up, Positive Views Down

Just a quarter of Americans (25%) say they have a favorable opinion of Congress, while 70% have an unfavorable view. This is among the lowest favorable ratings for Congress in more than two decades of Pew Research Center surveys.

The number expressing a favorable opinion of Congress has fallen by nine points since March (from 34% to 25%), with nearly equal declines among Republicans, Democrats and independents. The current rating is identical to April 2010 (25%), a period of highly negative views toward both the federal government and politicians.

Businesses and Unions Also Blamed

The report says the public’s frustration has broad implications beyond the government and elected officials. For example, both labor unions and business corporations are receiving the lowest favorability ratings on record. The current poll finds just 38% saying they feel favorably toward business corporations, and just 41% saying the same about labor unions. Majorities felt favorably toward both of these groups as recently as 2007.

Analysis of the Pew analysis: What next?

The Presidential election season has now started, and the Pew Research Centre has begun to analyse the various candidates, what the public thinks about them and their policies and which contenders are considered likely to fare better than others. To much of the world, however, this electoral circus is becoming a monumental joke with low tolerance levels of the extent to which the world must become hostage to the decision-making gridlock and parochial pandering that results, largely revolving around what the candidates feel will fetch them the most votes, the rest of the world be damned.

Much of the world still seems to look to the United States for leadership. But while the American people can choose their leaders, and enjoy the right to vote them in or out, the rest of the world unfortunately has no such option. We are stuck with their choice, and have zero influence to make them accountable for their behaviour on the global stage.

This will not last, especially as the U.S. continues to violate its own principles and shies away from practising what it preaches. One key issue due to come up in September 2011 at the UN general assembly at which the Palestinian people will be seeking global recognition for independence, freedom and statehood, the same as that enjoyed today by South Sudan, Timor Leste, Croatia, Serbia and other newly-independent countries.

A majority of the world’s countries are set to vote in favour of Palestine. But the U.S. is already on the record as threatening to veto it. This fine example of U.S. democratic credentials will further damage the U.S. image globally, especially in the Arab and Islamic worlds, and set the stage for more geopolitical conflicts.

The American public needs to start its own “awakening” process – and soon. If it is losing faith and trust in its leaders and institutions, the rest of the world is not far behind.