The FINANCIAL — As President Donald Trump delivers his first State of the Union address Tuesday night, less than half of Americans will share what undoubtedly will be his positive take on the nation’s situation.
At the same time, more Americans than at any time since the recent recession are nostalgic about the past, with ratings of the situation five years ago more positive than ratings of the current one. These perceptions are highly driven by partisanship, with Republicans exceedingly positive about the current and future situation of the country. Democrats are exceedingly negative about the present and future while positive about the past, according to Gallup.
Ratings of the Current State of the Nation Roughly the Same as Last Year
Gallup has asked Americans 23 times since 1959 to rate the state of the nation using a 0 to 10 scale, where 0 means the worst possible situation for the nation and 10 means the best possible situation. This year, 44% of Americans rate the nation’s current situation at the positive end of the scale (“6” to “10”), another 34% rate it negatively (“0” to “4”) and 21% hold a neutral attitude (“5”). The current positive rating is well below the high points recorded since 1959, although improved from the recent low point reached in 2010.
Across the available Gallup trends, Americans were most positive in 1959, 1964 and at the tail end of the dot-com boom in January 2001. The measure wasn’t asked during most years from 1980 through 1999.
Positivity dropped to about the 50% mark in surveys conducted from 2003 through 2008, but assessments were sharply lower in a 2010 update, reflecting the continuing impact of the Great Recession and perhaps the ongoing debate over the Affordable Care Act. Since then, positive ratings have slowly edged up. The current 44% is one percentage point above last year’s reading, and seven points higher than the 37% measured in 2010.
Americans were least likely to be positive about the state of the nation during the Watergate crisis in 1974 (33%) and in the summer of 1979 (34%), when the nation was suffering from inflation and a gas shortage causing long lines at the gas pump.
Six in 10 Say Nation Was in Positive Situation Five Years Ago
In this year’s update, 60% of Americans look back and rate the state of nation five years ago positively, 16 points higher than the 44% who believe the current situation is positive.
This nostalgia about the recent past is not uncommon. Americans have rated the historical situation more positively than the current situation 17 out of the 21 times the “looking back” question has been asked. Only in 1959, 1985, 1991 and 2001 was the present rated more positively than the past — and those came at times when the ratings of the nation’s current situation were particularly high.
In addition to rating the present and past, Gallup also asks Americans to rate their expectations for the future using the same ladder scale. Looking ahead five years, 53% of Americans project a positive situation for the nation. This is nine points higher than their ratings of the current situation.
As is the case with the comparison of the “looking back” question to the current situation, Americans usually rate the future more positively than the present. Only in 2001 and 2006 did Americans rate the future situation less positively than the current situation.
Republicans Positive About Current, Future Situation; Democrats Show Opposite Pattern
Trump will be addressing two audiences with widely differing views of the state of the union Tuesday night. Republicans and independents who lean Republican are quite positive about the current situation of the U.S. and about the future — sentiments Trump will no doubt echo in his speech. Democrats and Democratic leaners, on the other hand, overwhelmingly think the nation’s situation was positive five years ago, but are highly unlikely to agree that the nation is currently in a positive situation, or that it will be five years hence. Democrats’ positive ratings of the situation five years ago are likely driven by the change in presidency from Barack Obama to Trump. Like Republicans, however, Democrats are marginally more optimistic about the future than the present, but at much lower levels of positivity.
Democrats’ and Republicans’ Views Flipped This Year
As is true with many other attitudes, Republicans’ and Democrats’ views of the current state of the union flipped when Trump replaced Obama in the White House. In January 2016 and in January 2017, Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to rate the state of the nation positively. Now, after the first full year of the Trump administration, the differences are larger, but in the opposite direction.
The big jump in positive views of the state of the nation five years ago is mainly attributable to shifts in Democrats’ attitudes. Democrats began to see the past more fondly last year, as Obama was completing the final days of his eight-year presidency, and that trend accelerated this year. Meanwhile, Republicans have become less and less positive about the past.
Trump can correctly say in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night that the citizens of the nation are more positive about the nation’s current status now than they were a few years ago, but he would need to acknowledge that these positive sentiments have a long way to go to reach historical high points. If he says the prospects for the future are bright, he will be in tune with just over half of Americans (53%) who expect the situation five years from now to be positive. However, Trump would need to acknowledge that an even larger majority (60%) feel things were positive five years ago.
The sight of Republican members of Congress leaping to their feet and applauding during the address, while Democrats sit on their hands, will in many ways exemplify the views of Republicans and Democrats watching the speech at home. News reports have indicated that Trump may try to strike a bipartisan tone in his speech, which if true would be a much-needed shift from the strikingly polarized ways in which Republicans and Democrats are currently looking at the world.