Millions of people jobless. Billions of dollars in bailouts. Trillions of dollars in US debt. And yet, for the first time in years, more Americans than not say the country is on the right track.
In a sign that Barack Obama has inspired hopes for a brighter future in the first 100 days of his presidency, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 48 percent of Americans believe the US is headed in the right direction — compared with 44 percent who disagree.
The “right direction” number is up 8 points since February and a remarkable 31 points since October, the month before Obama’s election.
Intensely worried about their personal finances and medical expenses, Americans nonetheless appear realistic about the time Obama might need to turn things around, according to the AP-GfK poll. It shows, as Obama approaches his 100th day in office next Wednesday, most people consider their new president to be a strong, ethical and empathetic leader who is working to change Washington.
“He presents a very positive outlook,” said Cheryl Wetherington, 35, an independent voter who runs a chocolate shop in Gardner, Kan. “He’s very well-spoken and very vocal about what direction should be taken.”
Nobody knows how long the honeymoon will last, but Obama has clearly transformed the yes-we-can spirit of his candidacy into a tool of governance. His ability to inspire confidence has thus far buffered the president against the harsh realities of two wars, a global economic meltdown and countless domestic challenges.
Even if they don’t always like what he’s doing, Americans seem content for now that the president is taking action to correct the nation’s course. He’s doing something, anything, and that’s better than nothing.
“Some steps have been taken, and I can’t say that they’re the right ones, but steps have been taken,” said Dwight Hageman, 66, a retired welder from Newberg, Oregon, who voted against Obama.
Other AP-GfK findings could signal trouble for Obama.
While there is evidence of growing optimism about the economy, 65 percent said it’s difficult for them and their families to get ahead. More than one-third know of a family member who recently lost a job.
More than 90 percent of Americans consider the economy an important issue, the highest ever in AP polling and nearly 80 percent believe that the rising federal debt will hurt future generations.
Obama is also getting mixed reviews at best for his handling of the issue.
And yet, this is the first time since January 2004 that an AP survey found more “right direction” than “wrong direction” respondents. That fleeting 2004 burst of optimism came shortly after the capture of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
In recent years, the US public has tended to be more pessimistic than optimistic about the nation’s future. The exceptions lasted just a few months: the start of the Iraq war, the Sept. 11 attacks and late in the Clinton administration.
Obama is not the first president who has sought to shape the nation’s psychology, tapping the deep well of US optimism to effect policy and politics.
Even as he briefly closed the nation’s banks, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke in the first days of his presidency of the “confidence and courage” needed to fix the US economy.
“Together we cannot fail,” he declared. “Ronald Reagan reminded people that the US has always seen itself as a “shining city upon a hill.”