American optimism shows marked revival, say pollsters

Despite the recession and record unemployment, several respected pollsters say Americans are entering 1983 with a notable optimism about their future. The national mood reflects today's relative social stability, a willingness to endure short-term sacrifice in order to give the Reagan economic experiment a chance, and individuals' general satisfaction with their own prospects. This assessment comes from such public opinion experts as pollster Burns Roper, Everett Ladd, a University of Connecticut opinion analyst.

They point out that Americans' outlook today contrasts strikingly with the far gloomier mood of 1973 and 1974, when the United States was emerging from its last big recession.

Then, the country had suffered twin shocks - the crisis in national leadership that led to Richard Nixon's resignation, plus the recession and oil embargo. Also, the long Vietnam ordeal and civil-rights and youth unrest of the late '60s had badly shaken American society.

By contrast, the United States - and indeed much of the world - today feels beset chiefly by economic problems. The Middle East and Poland have calmed to a prolonged simmer. A recent Gallup international survey records a rising tide of optimism about chances for peace around the globe.

The Conference Board, a prominent economic research group, reports a continuing slowdown in business costs as compared with prices. It suggests a worldwide economic recovery may be getting under way. Also, business leaders' confidence in the US economy climbed again the last quarter.

But it is the contrast between this nation's mood now and the mood following the last big recession nearly a decade ago that carries the most significant implications.

At the end of 1973, only 35 percent of Americans thought the year ahead would be better or about the same for the nation, according to Roper Organization surveys. In 1974, it was 43 percent. But as this new year began, 79 percent of Americans said they thought 1983 would find the US better off or as well off.

The proportion of pessimists, those thinking the coming year would leave the nation worse off, was only 17 percent in December 1982, compared with 62 percent in December 1973 and 51 percent in December 1974.

As for Americans' private prospects for the coming year - traditionally rating higher than national prospects - 88 percent see 1983 as a better or equally good year for them, compared with 71 percent looking ahead at the end of 1973 and 73 percent in December 1974.

The political and economic ramifications of this generally positive outlook are broad, experts say. Among the points they make:

* President Reagan is more the beneficiary than the cause of the public's forbearance. His public standing is rather ordinary compared with recent presidents, and no higher than President Carter's at the same stage. Reagan's standing has held quite steady, without the wild gyrations that marked Carter's. The public's mood, if it holds steady, could enhance Reagan's chances for reelection.

* The public may be poised to spend the economy out of recession. Burns Roper reports that the public's feeling that it's a good time to buy - a key indicator of consumer trends - has made its third biggest leap ever. This signal is seen as particularly remarkable because it is occurring during a period of slowing inflation. Usually, Mr. Roper says, such rises in consumer optimism come during inflationary cycles.

But the broadest theme of the American outlook at the moment is ''a stability of public attitudes and commitments,'' says Everett Ladd.

''It is a stable period,'' Mr. Ladd says.

''It is clear, from a decade of data, that the public reacts to two separate dimensions: the economy's direction, and a general sense of national political leadership. Both are independently powerful. In 1973 and 1974, the economy was in recession and the political world was in an overwhelming funk. Today you have recession but no leadership crisis.''

The last election produced a huge mass of opinion data, with major nationwide voter exit polls run by the major media networks and other surveys, Ladd says.

''Out of it all comes a clear sense that the 1982 elections were a referendum ,'' he concludes. ''The message was decisive. It was 'stay the course' - but not in the way Reagan's entourage may want to put it. Despite not agreeing with all of the policies of the administration, despite the short-term pain, there was a consensus for the kind of change in direction taken in 1980.

''It is not narrow support for Reagan and his policies,'' Ladd says. ''But it is an optimism about the nation's political direction and leadership, similar to the staunch public support that has propped up Britain's Margaret Thatcher despite economic austerity and the Falklands crisis.''

A Democratic assessment of the public's outlook is offered by Paul Maslin, a pollster for Jimmy Carter during his election bids and White House reign.

''We've had an extended period of hard times,'' Mr. Maslin says. ''When you've had a long period of hard times, people think things have to get better.''

After the 1974 recession, Americans got back into an inflationary psychology that they may now be more determined to avoid. ''Job security still remains important to Americans,'' Maslin says. ''But people are not apocalyptic.''

Maslin sees the relative stability of Reagan's public standing as politically crucial. ''The view is still wait and see,'' he says. ''I think the public's patience (with Reagan) has to wear out. But Reagan's approval rating has been very flat the last year. If by June he's still in the low 40s, there's real patience out there.''

The Republicans can take advantage of the country's forbearance. ''Reagan will be able to say, 'I cut taxes, I got the inflation rate down, the country is stronger militarily' - and get many people to believe him,'' Maslin says. ''If the focus of the election is on that, he can win.''

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