September 12, 2011

75% Say We’re Headed In The Wrong Direction – The White House Should Start Listening

by Hal Gershowitz

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We ignore most polls because most are not meaningfully instructive and, often, the phrasing of the questions hideously corrupts the results.  There are, however, some polls we do watch carefully because we believe they are instructive.  The Rasmussen “wrong direction, right direction” tracking poll is one we do watch carefully. It is conducted week after week and the single question that is asked (do you believe the country is headed in the right direction or the wrong direction?) is exquisitely unambiguous, and the message it conveys to the ruling class can only be ignored at great peril.

Campaign strategists for President Obama as well as the leaders of both political parties, should be burning a lot of midnight oil pondering the reality that three quarters of the nation believes we are headed in the wrong direction.  That’s not just an opinion that’s being expressed.  It, rather, reflects a growing sinking feeling, a queasiness in the nation’s collective gut, not that things just aren’t going well, but that things are getting worse. It says that the vast majority of Americans believe the course that has been, and is being, set is the wrong course.

What should be particularly distressing to the White House is not only that the nation’s confidence is so low, but that it has also been deteriorating rather steadily.  To be sure, the people were unhappy with the direction of the country when President Bush left office.  When Bush departed Washington, two-thirds of the people felt we were headed in the wrong direction.  Now, following thirty-three months of President Obama’s initiatives to fundamentally transform America, three-quarters of the nation feels we are headed in the wrong direction.  The question doesn’t ask whether the people are happy with where we are, but, more importantly, whether they are happy with where we are headed.

Most polls provide a glimpse at where the electorate’s opinions are at a given moment, and, consequently, are subject to rapid change.  For example, prior to September 15th 1950, most Americans probably would not have liked the way the war in Korea was going.  But between September 15 and September 19th the enormously successful Inchon landing took place, and American opinion, no doubt, turned around on a dime.  President George H.W. Bush enjoyed very high approval ratings in January of 1991 following the successful Gulf War, but in spite of his personal popularity, his electability diminished as the economy declined in the months thereafter, clearing the way for President Clinton’s election in 1992.  Likewise, President Obama enjoyed a temporary, but well deserved, bump in his approval rating when our navy seals took out Osama Bin Laden.

Presidential approval ratings (as compared to the “where we’re headed ratings“) are, we believe, less telling.  Respondents may personally like a president.  They may think he is really trying hard or that he really wants to do the right thing. When, however, they are asked whether they think the country is headed in the right direction or the wrong direction, those personal (or even political) biases largely disappear. It is a question that elicits more than a mere opinion.  It calls for an expression of one’s common sense.

President Obama is widely admired and, to many, he is an inspiring figure.  He has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence; he is extremely well educated, uncommonly articulate, displays an impressive grasp of detail and is the first African American President of the United States.  But he and his advisors know that the results of the next Presidential election are not apt to run contrary to the direction in which the voters believe the country is headed.  It will be hard for the President and his campaign strategists to blame Bush for the direction in which the country is heading four years after Bush will have left office. While the most recent Gallop Poll has President Obama at just under a 50 percent approval rating, which attests to his rather broad personal popularity, that same Gallop poll also tells us that 76 percent of the people know something is terribly wrong.  They believe the economy is getting worse, which tracks in tandem with the Rasmussen’s finding that the people believe we are headed in the wrong direction.

If, thirteen months from now, the country believes the country is headed in the right direction, President Obama can look forward to another four years in Washington.  If, on the other hand, the “where we’re headed” polls continue to show that the vast majority of Americans believe we’re headed in the wrong direction, the President is not likely to be returned to office if the electorate perceives his opponent to be a serious exemplar of what they perceive is a better direction.

It is, at this point in time, difficult to see what might cause American voters to change their negative view of the direction in which the country is headed.  Unemployment remains stubbornly high and all indications are that it will remain high, levitating around nine percent. Leading financial analysts expect GDP growth to come in at under 2.0 percent for 2011 and barely 2.0 for 2012 (Goldman-Sachs revised estimates for economic growth).   These projections are woefully short of the Administration’s more optimistic economic projections.  The Goldman-Sachs economists expect unemployment in the United States to edge up to 9.25 by the end of 2012.

Further exasperating the economic outlook for the country is the deepening financial crisis in Europe. If Europe sinks into recession, or if the dollar continues to strengthen against the Euro (assuming there continues to be a Euro) American exports to Europe are certain to suffer. Not a pretty picture for an Administration trying to posture for reelection.

All of this would suggest to us that the White House should have all of its efforts focused on stimulating economic growth.  Corporate taxes should be pegged at rates that give American firms competitive advantage rather than placing them at a competitive disadvantage.  Individual tax rates should be simplified and reduced as suggested by Simpson-Bowles.

Unnecessary and outdated tax policies including the entire panoply of credits, deductions and other tax subsidies and privilege that drain revenue should be stricken from the tax code.  We should concentrate regulatory efforts on enforcing those regulations that are on the books that ensure a fair and level playing field for every enterprise engaged in the commerce of the country.  Perhaps, most important, we should signal the burgeoning federal bureaucracy to turn off the paper chase of writing new regulations with which to saddle and financially burden American business.

We don’t need a vast new federal jobs program nearly as much as we need a vast new federal mentality for stimulating the economic-growth-conducive policies that in turn produce new and needed opportunity for all Americans.

Today, Americans overwhelmingly feel we “are headed in the wrong direction.” That’s what the polls tell us.  George Gallop, the father of modern polling once remarked that, “the common people of America display a quality of good common sense which is heartening to anyone who believes in the democratic process.”  If the Administration continues to pursue variations of the same failed policies, the President will find it hard to run against that same “good common sense.”

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5 responses to “75% Say We’re Headed In The Wrong Direction – The White House Should Start Listening”

  1. Dan Newell says:

    Hal and Stephen:

    1) The nation now is rudderless with no direction coming from the White House except pleas to be nice to each other. At least under the Bushes and Clinton, the nation could see and feel a direction to which agreement or not could be registered. Obama’s decision about ObL was excellent, but making decisions between clear alternatives set before you is different than conjuring up and “selling” necessary programs as a leader should. Obama’s new program we heard about this week might be good. I wish we heard about it sooner.

    2) Regarding polls, the best type are those that you see and hear at a tennis tournament like the US Open Tennis. Before and after every point, the crowd expresses its feelings, sometimes sinking (as you say in your article), sometimes triumphant, appreciative, angry, disgusted, supportive, tearful, etc. You hear contrasts such as louder yelling for Fedderer when he is about to win but when Djokovic implores the crowd to yell for him, it changes. Like British Parliament in session. Real time expressions of feelings from the masses. You hear majority and minority voices all at once. Without the fights of a soccer match. A model for a new form of government?

    3) What’s wrong with a tennis democracy? People actually pay to see a match and many more turn out than Congress would get. Sponsors sense crowd favorites and pay lots for those favorites to wear or drive their products. Testimony to the accuracy of tennis polls.


  2. mark j levick says:

    It has yet to occur to either our President, the Congress or the American people that we are in the process of going broke by supporting and expanding failed programs. Their solution is we need to hire more bureaucrats, pass more legislation and collect more campaign contributions so we can continue to reward ourselves and our friends. Governing for the good of the order hasn’t happened in recent memory. We have been going in the wrong directions for the last forty years and not many have noticed that their is no accountability for failed programs such as energy, immigration and education to name a few. The one bright stop is the performance of the military but even that is clouded by massive waste. Obama’s solution — hire more bureaucrats, spend more on education, hire union labor, cut the miltary and raise taxes on those earning more that $200,00 per year. Even those who like him aren’t convinced that is a recipe for success. It’s a start.

  3. irwin yablans says:

    Good to have your thought provoking blog commentary again.

  4. Michael Kaback says:

    We need your erudite commentary on what is our greatest problem: that WE ARE NO LONGER A DEMOCRACY, rather a plutocracy or an oligarchy. Perhaps an even better term might be a “LOBBYOCRACY”, which is why the suggestions you make, although laudable and worthy, will never come to pass in this nation. We are in deep trouble, right here in River City!!

  5. Jerry Kessler says:

    Another on the mark review of our country’s status. It seems amazing to me, that President Obama continues to offer yet another “it won’t cost anything” plan, and then comes out a few days later basing it all on increased taxes-rather than reduced spending. As the poll you reference shows, people do not like the direction the country is heading. Seventy-five percent is an astounding number. The next few weeks, let alone the next thirteen months should be revealing, especially if the 75% figure continues to grow.
    Well done, well said. Thanks

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