Bunch of Whiners?

We've Been on the Wrong Track Since 1972

Pundits pointed to the high “wrong track” answers as evidence of Obama’s shortcomings. In fact, it’s ever been thus.

Larry Downing/Reuters

“Seven out of ten Americans think America is heading in the wrong direction.” Most of us heard poll numbers along these lines this heading into Tuesday’s midterm elections. And the election results made it clear that voters blamed President Obama and Democrats for leading our nation down the wrong path.

But here’s the thing: Over the past 40 years, polls have consistently found that a solid majority of Americans have not been happy with the direction of our nation. Sure, there have been a few bright spots, but they are far outweighed by the times we have not been satisfied with the way things are going.

Reportedly it was in August 1971 that a pollster first asked voters the question: “Do you feel that things in this country are generally going in the right direction today, or do you feel that things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track?”

So what was the response back then? Well, 63 percent of those polled felt that country was on the wrong track. Keep in mind that in 1971, unemployment had risen to 5.9 percent from below 4 percent in the late 1960s, inflation was climbing, plus the Vietnam War was causing domestic turmoil.

I reviewed as many polls as I could find from the 1970s to today on this question. Want to guess when the highest percentage of Americans thought our nation was not just on the wrong track, but had fallen off the tracks and landed in a ditch?

The correct answer is six years ago, in the fall of 2008. That, of course, is when our economy imploded. Per Gallup, between September through about November 2008, only 7 to 9 percent of the country thought the country was heading in the right direction (that was probably just the Bush and Cheney families.) A whopping 91 percent believed the nation was heading on the wrong track.

So when have Americans felt the most satisfied with the direction of our country? Actually the there were three times in the past 40 plus years that a solid majority of Americans, for a sustained period of time, believed that the nation was on the right track.

From 1984 to 1986 during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Gallup found that a slight majority to 60 percent of Americans thought the nation was on the right track as the economy came back to life from a punishing recession. (That was up from approximately 30 percent in Reagan’s first four years.) But by 1987 that number had fallen to 45 percent and would not break 50 again during Reagan’s term.

Again there was a bright spot in late 1990s. Counter-intuitively for some, this happened during the heart of President Clinton’s impeachment. However, at the time the economy was firing on all cylinders, with unemployment in the area of 4.5 percent and Clinton still very popular. Consequently, from late 1998 through 2000, a majority Americans were satisfied with direction of the nation, with one Gallup poll even reaching 71 percent. (These poll numbers again prompt the question: How could Al Gore lose in 2000?!)

So when was the highest number? Cue Final Jeopardy music as I give you a second to think. Time’s up. The correct answer is right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath of the worst attack on our soil, one NBC poll found 72 percent of Americans approved of the direction our nation was heading. Interestingly, just a month before 9/11, that number was at only about 40 percent. Clearly 9/11 inspired Americans to not just rally around President Bush, who saw record approval numbers, but also to be less vocally critical of our nation.

However, that feeling soon faded. Just seven months later polls found only about 40 percent of the nation thought were heading in the right direction.

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From there the numbers have dropped steadily. Since 2002 we have ranged from the low 40’s down to single digits in terms of being satisfied with our country. And over the past 12 years, polls have found that in general more than 60 percent of Americans believed the nation was heading in the wrong direction.

Well, so much for Obama being the sole culprit for why we think America is on the wrong track. We have been feeling this way for at least 40-plus years. Of course earlier generations might have felt the same and simply had not been asked. But for some reason I doubt we would’ve seen as much negativity from the Greatest Generation.

Why are we like this? Have we become a nation of Veruca Salts from “Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory,” who are unbearably demanding?

Or is it deeper? It’s likely not a coincidence that the pollsters first asked about the track our nation was heading in the early 1970’s because they themselves also felt America had lost its way. After all from the 1940s to the early 1970s, the U.S. economy grew at the rate of 4 percent a year, and unemployment rose above 6 percent only twice in that 25-year period.

But from there we had Watergate, stagflation, oil embargos, eroding American power in the world, growing income inequality, etc. Even Ronald Reagan, who some on the right view as the greatest president ever, only saw three of his eight years as president where 50 percent or more of Americans felt the country was on the right track.

By October 1991, 53 percent of Americans expressed the view that our nation was on the decline, and that number continued to climb (with the brief Clinton bright spot) to 74 percent in 2008. It now sits at 60 percent. And worse, a poll released just a few weeks ago found that 51 percent of Americans think our best days as a country are behind us, with only 34 percent believing are best days are yet to come.

Bottom line is that politicians can continue to expect to see these brutal election swings where we take out our collective frustrations on the political party in charge because America is not the country we think it should be. Perhaps we have every right to be that demanding. Or maybe it’s time that we collectively lower our expectations because it’s unlikely America will ever be the country we see in our mind’s eye. I’m truly not sure which is the better option for the future of our nation.