In the midst of this furiously competitive electoral season, public attitudes perplex prognosticators with their glaring and irrational contradictions. The only sure bet seems to be that the inauguration of a new president will help to resolve those contradictions and, regardless or his (or – gulp! – her) identity, will most likely move the mood in a more optimistic direction.
“Change” is the most important single word in the presidential campaign at the same time that most people like their lives just as they are. Whenever ordinary Americans get the chance to register their opinions, they say they feel pleased about their private lives, but report a sense of unease and frustration concerning the nation at large. Though presidential elections theoretically inspire “hope” (another big word along the campaign trail) with the possibility of fresh leadership, the unique circumstances of this particular campaign cycle serve to intensify the gap between personal contentment and public pessimism.
At the beginning of the year, the Gallup Poll (with responses gathered between December 6 and 9, 2007) showed that Americans remain a remarkably happy and satisfied people. A stunning 92% reported themselves “very happy” or “fairly happy,” while a mere 6% claimed the label “not too happy.” Moreover, by a ratio of exactly six to one, respondents said they are satisfied with their personal lives as opposed to dissatisfied (84% to 14%). Surprisingly, the percentage who reported the highest level of contentment (“very satisfied”) with their private situations actually soared between December 2006 and December 2007 – from 55% to 59%. Despite the widespread, nearly universal assumption that the nation faces a moment of hardship, insecurity and danger, the personal satisfaction level remains distinctly above the already high average recorded over the 29 years Gallup’s been asking the same questions in the poll.
Nevertheless, the same survey that shows a singularly sunny view of our intimate arrangements indicates a vastly more negative attitude toward the general situation in society: only 27% of Americans report they are “very satisfied” or even “somewhat satisfied” with the way things are going in the United States at large. As the Gallup organization reports, there is “a vivid contrast between Americans’ view of things ‘out there’ across the country and their view of their own personal lives.” By the same token, there’s a startling contrast according to the most recent polling between assessments of the current economic situation (where three-fourths say the economy is “bad”) and the expectations by the same respondents of the likely conditions a year from today (where two thirds expect things to be “good.”)