Plunge in Americans' Confidence More Complex Than Polls Suggest

POLLS this fall have shown exceptionally steep drops in a series of measures of political sentiment, economic concern, and confidence in the overall national direction.For example, George Bush's presidential approval rating, which reached an all-time high of 89 percent in the Gallup poll taken as the Gulf war ended, remained very high through the summer. But it then fell off sharply: Just 52 percent expressed approval at the end of November (see chart). Similarly, the proportion of Americans saying "things in the nation are generally headed in the right direction," as opposed to being "off on the wrong track," shifted from 41 percent to 38 percent at the end of August, and it plummeted to 19 percent in late November. The Conference Board's Index of Consumer Confidence fell 22 points from August to November. These shifts are very large when viewed against past performance. The recent plunge in the Consumer Confidence Index took that measure to one of the lowest readings recorded in its 22-year existence. (The lowest mark, 43, came in December 1974.) The 19 percent of Americans saying last month that the United States is moving in the right direction was just three points above the lowest ever recorded in the scores of times this question has been asked; the low of 16 percent came in the fall of 1979. The prevailing interpretation sees the recent downturn in the "confidence" measures originating in a souring of the US economy, which has left many Americans in something of a panic about their finances. This has in turn "rubbed off" on the president, weakening his popular standing, and has left the country much more pessimistic. Upon closer examination, this view has lots of flaws. For one thing, while the economy is sluggish, virtually all measures show it stronger now than it was last March - when many confidence readings (though not consumer confidence) were recording near- record highs. There wasn't significant economic change this fall, nor was there in September and October last year, when the confidence readings took a plunge virtually identical to that we've just seen. The performance of the US economy is one element in the swings we have been experiencing. But it's hardly the only major factor, and it probably isn't even the leading one. One other causal element in the recent shifts - developments in the Persian Gulf, and Americans' reactions to them - is evident enough. The consumer confidence, "right direction," Bush approval, and many other such scores all rose sharply last winter - and surely not because the economy was improving, for it was in fact sliding backward. The war was front and center in public consciousness, and there the country's performance was deemed excellent. This rising tide of national sentiment lifted all boats - all the disparate readings of mood and confidence. The Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index is based on responses to five survey questions, all narrowly economic. Respondents are asked to assess business conditions in their area today and to look ahead to what they are likely to be six months hence; to judge the employment situation now and their expectations for it in the immediate future; and to evaluate their own income prospects. But, as was the case last fall and winter and again this past fall, these specifically economic queries often pick up striking shifts that result from non-economic factors. We probably should drop "consumer" from the Index's name. The questions tap into elements of confidence or mood, which may well influence economic behavior. But the sources of these responses - except during extremes of national economic experience (i.e., in a very deep recession) - reach far beyond the economy. Though ostensibly very different in their focus, the various measures we have been examining all reflect a diffuse amalgam we can call simply the national mood. In our age of pervasive electronic communication, this mood - at least at a surface level - behaves like an express elevator. What's more, it doesn't take major shifts in the country's foundations to bring about a mood change. In the fall of 1990, for example, the spectacle of president and Congress locked in endless budget wrangling, and the president's backing off on his "no new taxes" pledge, was enough to sour public sentiment. In the case of the Gulf war, it was the president's leadership and the military's performance, widely applauded, that dramatically raised the national mood, which in turn led people to proclaim greater economic confidence. Of course, except when confronted with major privation, Americans are likely to feel better about the economy when what they are seeing nightly are victories in the Gulf war, than when they are being told nightly that the economy is in shambles - the case this fall. When people are asked about their own economic position - about which they have full personal knowledge - their responses show great stability. Most Americans' economic fortunes stay fairly constant and their assessments reflect this. Each year since 1972, the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center has asked its respondents whether they are "pretty well satisfied," or "not at all satisfied." Not once over these two decades has the proportion saying they are dissatisfied dropped lower than 23 percent, or risen higher than 30 percent. In the survey taken earlier this year it was 27 percent. This past summer and fall, when consumer-confidence measures were showing such a steep decline, surveys by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal found Americans' assessments of their own economic situations changing not at all. Similarly, when asked about their family life, or their social and religious values, people's responses vary little, whatever the headlines of the day. They are firmly anchored by concrete experiences. But asked about "how is it all going," in a world where so much is going on, and being transported into their living rooms in full color each night in such differing mixes of reporting, Americans now evince big if fairly superficial swings of mood. This is one more novel feature of media-centered, information-laden, "post-industrial" politics.

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