A new and unique analysis of the national mood shows Americans had plunged into a deep gloom in election year 1980 -- deeper than the Watergate-inflation doldrums of 1974.
But the gloom has turned sharply to optimism in the first spring of the Reagan administration -- though not yet nearly as high a sense of bouyancy and anticipation as in President Carter's first months in 1977.
The novel index of how we are doing as a nation -- or "the gross national spirit" (GNS) -- was fashioned by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut. It attempts to reflect Americans' personal and national confidence in a manner similar to the way the consumer price index, gross national product, or the index of leading economic indicators trackseconomic trends
The national optimism index is a composite of survey data in six areas -- personal satisfaction, family financial shape, how the nation is doing now, whether national conditions will improve in the future, the national economic outlook, and how the political leadership -- particularly the President -- is doing.
The index shows that:
* Despite the nation's troubles in the '70s, Americans have been remarkably secure in their sense of how they are doing personally. They continue to hold a high basic commitment to their nation. But they have been deeply disappointed in their political leadership's performance.
* President Reagan's election, like Mr. Carter's appears to be follwed by a bubble of optimism that national economic performance, chiefly, will either sustain or experience a new burst.
(Survey data from the National Opinion Research Center, the Institute for Social Research, and the Yankelovich and Gallup organizations were used to construct the post-Watergate GNS index.)
"The current 'How are we doing?' figures are middle of the pack for the malaise decade that we've been through," says Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center. "People have been saying they're angry -- though you can't take their responses literally. The data show symbolic floggings of leaders. People don't think their leaders are going a good job.
"But if you ask people in more serious, underlying ways, 'Have you given up on your nation?' They say, 'No.' Confidence in the nation has stayed high. Personal satisfaction has stayed high. But the sense of the nation's performance has stayed low the last 14 or 15 years."
The swings in the national mood index thus camouflage considerable stability in the public psyche, which is not usually taken into account in weighing the political implications of opinion shifts.
The most volatility is in leadership performance and in economic performance. Thus the Reagan administration, and the Republicans, should not make too much of more optimistic opinion readings, Mr. Ladd and other opinion analysts warn.
The republican National Committee has been touting polls taken by Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin that show the Republicans drawing even with Democrats in party identification among Americans and that show more Americans think the country now is "going in the right direction."
Other researchers, however, show the Democrats holding their edge. Burns Roper, a dean of survey research in America, points out that his readings of party identification show the Democrats with a 43 percent to 27 percent lead over the Republicans, as of last month. This represents a slight gain from a Democrats 44 percent, Republicans 22 percent margin in May a year ago.
A number of independent surveys confirm the GNS index's swing to optimism with the start of the Reagan administration. The Roper organization's surveys show a slight gain in attitudes toward personal prospects, and a sizable swing in national prospects for the year ahead.
"The only year we had brighter expectations was at the end of 1976, after Carter's election," Roper says. "Reagan is looking good in the public eye partly because expectations were noticeably lower for him than for Carter four years ago. Most people voted for him because they voted against Carter -- and they're finding they like him."
"Reagan, three years from now, will never be seen as a 'pretty good' president," Roper says. "Either he will be a hero or a bum. It depends on how the economy works out -- whether inflation is under control, or people are still griping."
The heavy emphasis the US public places on economic leadership was evident in both the 1976 and 1980 elections. The Reagan and Carter votes in 1980 closely followed voters' views of whether they were better off financially than the year before. And in both cases the public took a rosy view of the future early in the two administrations.