The U.S. public’s economic outlook is turning from fear to hope with the presidential election campaign under way.
More than twice as many Americans view the economy’s prospects as brightening as see them darkening, a reversal from nine months ago, when more people expected deterioration ahead, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted March 8-11.
“It’s starting to get better,” says survey respondent Kelsey Simeon, 21, a mechanical-engineering student at California State University, Sacramento, in a follow-up interview. “Strip malls that were empty are starting to fill up. Everyone’s going out to eat more. People are spending more money on non-necessities: clothes and iPods.”
More Americans now say they are personally better off since President Barack Obama took office than worse off, the first favorable reading for the president on that question since Bloomberg began asking in December 2010.
Thirty-eight percent say they are better off while 36 percent say they’re worse off. In September, the last time that question was asked, only 27 percent said they were better off and 44 percent said worse off.
While Republicans attack Obama over rising gasoline prices, Americans don’t primarily blame the White House. Sixty-six percent place more responsibility on oil companies and Middle East nations taking advantage of tensions with Iran. Only 23 percent say the White House is more at fault. Even Republicans put more blame on oil companies and Mideast governments, 49 percent compared to 45 percent who point at the administration.
Still Wrong Track
The sour public mood of recent years about the country’s general path also has eased somewhat: 31 percent say the U.S. is headed in the right direction, the most in a year and a half and an 11-point uptick since last September.
Americans are still far from content, with 61 percent saying the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction. That reading is about the same as in October 2010, the month before Republicans rode a wave of discontent to take control of the U.S. House from the Democrats in congressional elections.
Wariness dominates feelings about the economy. Asked their view, 45 percent say they are cautious, 37 percent hopeful and 17 percent fearful. Last June, 51 percent responded cautious, 23 percent hopeful and 25 percent fearful.
Optimism in Suburbs
Economic hope is more pronounced among suburban residents, 41 percent, and non-whites, 46 percent. An optimistic outlook is less common among married women with children, with 31 percent saying they’re hopeful; men without college degrees, 32 percent; and households with children under 18, 32 percent.
The elderly have the most positive economic outlook and the young the least, with 44 percent of Americans age 65 and older seeing signs of improvement versus 31 percent of those under 35. Attitudes toward the economy also closely track political views, with 68 percent of Democrats hopeful, along with 29 percent of independents and 19 percent of Republicans.
The economy strengthened late last year as growth accelerated from a 1.3 percent annual pace in the second quarter to 3 percent in the final three months of the year. Unemployment has dropped in five of the past six months, to 8.3 percent in February from 9.1 percent last August. The benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index is up more than 9 percent this year.
The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index for the week ended March 4, its most recent reading, hit a four-year high. For a fifth straight week, half of those surveyed also rated their personal finances as positive.
In the Bloomberg poll, readings on the economy and country are divided along racial, as well as partisan, lines.
The racial gulf over economic progress during the Obama presidency is deep. More whites say their personal situation has deteriorated than improved, by 42 percent to 30 percent. Among non-whites, 55 percent say they are better off and only 23 percent say their situation is worse.
Even so, employment opportunities have rebounded more for whites than other groups. Unemployment for whites was 7.3 percent in February, down from a peak of 9.3 percent in October 2009 and 7.1 percent when Obama took office. Unemployment for blacks was 14.1 percent in February. The nation’s 8.3 percent unemployment rate in February compares with 10 percent in October 2009 and 7.8 percent at Obama’s inauguration.
White House Advantage
The White House has an advantage over Republicans in its core economic message. Asked the better way to promote growth, 51 percent favor government investment in infrastructure, education and alternative energy, a theme often sounded by Obama. Forty-one percent prefer reductions in taxes and government spending, a rallying cry of Republicans.
The edge was less-pronounced among political independents, with 50 percent favoring investment compared with 43 percent who choose spending cuts. Whites divide on the question, with government investments favored by 46 percent to 45 percent.
The administration’s economic message resonates with support across a range of demographic groups considered swing political constituencies, including suburban independents and men without college degrees.
Elderly Americans prefer spending cuts with 50 percent support over 37 percent favoring government investment.
Unemployment and jobs remains the dominant concern of Americans, cited by 42 percent, followed by the federal deficit, chosen by 21 percent and gasoline prices, 11 percent.
Public Favors Drilling
While Americans don’t accept the argument that Obama is to blame for rising gasoline prices, the Republican message of expanded domestic oil drilling and exploration has more credibility as a way to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Forty-nine percent of poll respondents back that approach compared with 46 percent who prefer expanded development of alternative fuels and conservation.
There is a deep generational divide on energy. Fifty-nine percent of Americans under 35 say alternative fuels and conservation offer the best course for energy independence while the same 59 percent majority of people 65 and older favor more oil drilling.
Americans are growing less pessimistic about real estate: 46 percent say they expect home values in their area to return to pre-recession levels within five years, up from 41 percent who thought so last September.
Public opinion of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has dropped to the lowest level since Bloomberg began measuring it in September 2009. Twenty-seven percent of Americans view him favorably against 31 percent with an unfavorable opinion. Still, the largest number, 42 percent, say they aren’t sure of their opinion of the central banker.
The poll of 1,002 adults was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.