How stands the American psyche at the start of George Bush's presidency?
Sturdier and more optimistic than the gloomsters can ever quite comprehend - but with some surprising twists along the way.That's the message of a new nationside poll of how Americans view the economy, their personal financial lives and their futures. Detailed results of the survey, conducted by Opinion Research Corporation, will be released this coming week on the one-hour PBS television special, "Louis Rukeyser's 1989 Money Guide," but this column is getting an exclusive advance peek today.
The poll, which has the customary margin of error of three percent, was taken earlier this month among 1,001 representative adults - and its findings help put into perspective a number of key events of recent months: the rejection of political candidates who claimed the economy was falling apart, the continuing strength in consumer spending and the overall economy's ability to sail tranquilly into an unprecedented seventh straight year of peacetime expansion.
For, as much as it may startle some people, it turns out that most Americans are in danger of being classified as downright happy. Fully 79 percent of the respondents - including a solid majority in every income group - said 1988 had been at least a fairly good year for them. And an even larger number (93 percent) think 1989 will turn out just as well, if not better.
In this respect, the people's expectations seem to be leading those of the alleged experts. The consensus of business economists, which since the recovery began has been glumly predicting a relapse into recession "next year," has just - for the first time - pushed the feared starting date beyond 1989.
Perhaps because of this perennially nervous drumbeat, the overwhelming optimism that people expressed about their own economic prospects was slightly curbed when they were asked about the outlook for the nation this year. Still, 72 percent of the respondents thought the country would do at least as well in 1989 as it had in 1988.
The poll results also suggested that class-war rhetoric, the traditional inflaming of "us against them," is losing its power to compete with the more idealistic American dream. Fully 80 percent of those polled either strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement that, "Everyone has a chance to succeed in America."
Nor do most Americans appear to think that you have to be born with a silver spoon. By 51 percent to 45 percent, the respondents disagreed with the statement that "What one can achieve in the United States depends mainly on one's family background."
Perhaps the most surprising result, in a nation where bellyaching was a right enshrined, fully 84 percent allowed that they were at least "fairly satisfied" with their current standard of living. (Such contentment, which will do doubt baffle the polemicists, was expressed by 60 percent of those with household incomes under $10,000 a year.)
None of this, by the way, implied that we wouldn't all like to live a lot better. Seventy-three percent said they often wished they were making more money - the other 27 percent presumably being either saints or liars - but only 42 percent said they often worry about having enough to meet their monthly bills. (The survey did not investigate how many of their creditors do their worrying for them.)
Indeed, it seems that we're not nearly as frightened of matters financial as we are often assumed to be. Asked to rate themselves as managers of money, "in terms of meeting your or your household's financial needs and expenses," a solid 54 percent of those surveyed described themselves as "good" at it - and another 23 percent (including 25 percent of the women) insisted that they were absolutely "excellent."
Foreseeing an economy pretty much holding to its present course (61 percent expect prices to "go up a little" in 1989), the respondents expressed a readiness to consider a variety of investments - and 56 percent said they thought it was a good time to buy a house.
In short, it seems to be a remarkably calm and confident America that George Bush is inheriting. And that in itself may not be the worst of economic indicators.