Late-night comedians use an old trick to bond with tonight’s audience by poking fun at the alleged dim-wittedness or surliness of last night’s audience. It’s a favorite motif of David Letterman, who once used the Federal Reserve’s pegging of the federal funds rate at just above zero to quip, “I haven’t seen interest this low since last night’s audience.”
But it’s a good bet that Letterman or Jay Leno or Jimmy Kimmel or Conan O’Brien has never faced a crowd as despairing and distrustful as the Sept. 8 national audience, to which President Barack Obama will speak on the U.S. job crisis; Americans, famous for their indomitable self-confidence, are now racked by self-doubt.
Bill McInturff, the Republican half of the respected Hart-and-McInturff polling duo — they conduct the Wall Street Journal-NBC News survey — offers an alarming, nonpartisan analysis of today’s public mood. Based on public polls and surveys and focus groups he did for his own firm, Public Opinion Strategies, McInturff concludes that the (mis)handling of the debt ceiling ranks with the Iran hostage crisis, Hurricane Katrina and the Lehman Brothers collapse and subsequent recessions as a pivotal event “profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and federal government.” He goes on: “It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both, at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded.”
On the debt ceiling, it was not just the end product the parties eventually slapped together that soured people’s attitudes but “the manner in which this issue was debated and resolved.” As McInturff writes, public “views about this process are clear, and are overwhelmingly negative.”
Granted, Americans have never been uncritical fans of their country’s political system, but how about this for a dramatic drop in satisfaction? In 2009 and again this year, The Washington Post asked, “How satisfied are you with the way this country’s political system is working — very satisfied, mostly satisfied, mostly dissatisfied or very dissatisfied?”
Two years ago, 38 percent reported they were satisfied, while 61 percent answered “dissatisfied” (with 31 percent reporting “very dissatisfied”). The most recent results: just 21 percent satisfied and 78 percent dissatisfied (while 45 percent are very dissatisfied).
While Republicans in Congress consistently receive lower grades than the Democratic president, it is a rule of U.S. politics that when things are
good, it is the president who gets the credit, and when things are bad, it is the president who takes the political hit.
Coincidentally, Peter Hart released a poll last week done for Citibank that contained equally dismal news on consumers’ pessimism. Today, three years after the financial collapse, nearly three out of four Americans believe that the economy has not yet hit rock bottom. Since January, when 63 percent of people believed that business conditions were good, that number has plummeted from 51 percent in April to just 41 percent today.
McInturff notes that since 1952, on only four other occasions — 1974 (President Richard M. Nixon resigned, home sales were down 40 percent, inflation rose to 13.9 percent); 1979 (62 hostages were taken in Iran, the oil crisis created filling-station lines, the prime rate was at 15.75 percent); 1990 (GNP dropped after a record eight years of growth, housing values took a nosedive after the savings-and-loan scandal, Iraq invaded Kuwait); and 2008 (no reminders needed) — has the consumer confidence number measured by the Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index fallen below 65 percent.
You don’t need to be a historian to remember that in each of the presidential elections immediately following those last four low-consumer-confidence years, party control of the White House changed.
Consumer confidence fell nearly 16 points from an already low number in July to 55.7 percent in August. To put this in some historical context, over the last half-century, the average consumer index for re-elected incumbent presidents has been 95.9 percent, while the average consumer confidence score of defeated incumbents has been 78.4 percent — which is itself a long climb from the current 55.7 percent.
Facing a dispirited and pessimistic constituency, Obama might take some comfort in the words of President John F. Kennedy in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “This is the week I earn my salary.”
— Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.