Poll Reflects a Seething, Alienated Public

Americans are unhappy with elected officials, the economy, income disparities, foreign policy and a future with dark clouds no silver lining.Americans aren't happy. They see the country headed on the wrong track. They aren't satisfied with the economic recovery. They have low opinions of the President and Congress. They think America is in decline. They believe a widening gap in incomes undermines the idea of opportunity for all.

Those are some of the findings from a poll conducted this month by Hart Research Associates for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal. Hart interviewed 1,000 American adults, including 350 respondents who only have a cell phone, which yielded a broad spectrum of participation, including 11 percent from adults between the ages of 18 and 24. 

The public rarely has an opportunity to see raw poll results from a credible pollster. Hart Research was founded by Peter Hart in 1971. In addition to work for Democrats, Hart Research has conducted surveys for nonprofits and social causes. Since 1989, Hart has teamed with a leading Republican pollster to conduct polls shared with the public. 

Some of the findings in the latest poll aren't surprising and don't veer from recent trends. The last time Americans thought the country was headed in the right direction was April 2009 and even then it was a 43-43 percent tie.

Much is made of declines in approval ratings for President Obama, but they aren't as severe as some suggest. The August poll showed 42 percent of respondents approved of Obama's handling of the economy, compared to 53 percent disapproving. However, the low-water mark for Obama came in May 2011 when his approval rating was just 37 percent. It was 39 percent as recently as last December.

Approval ratings have dropped for Obama's handling of foreign policy. Only 36 percent approve of his leadership on foreign policy and 60 percent disapprove. His rating has steadily declined in the last year from 54 percent approval in August 2013. 

Put that in perspective with the 14 percent approval and 79 percent disapproval rating for Congress. That nearly equals the worst rating racked up by Congress in July 2013 with 12 percent approval and 83 percent disapproval. Forty percent of respondents say they have very or somewhat positive feelings about Obama, compared to 19 percent for congressional Republicans and 31 percent for congressional Democrats. By the way, Vladimir Putin's positive rating was 4 percent.

However, the more disconcerting findings in the poll deal with the economy and attitudes about opportunity. Only 28 percent are very or somewhat satisfied with the state of the economy contrasted to 71 percent who are somewhat or very dissatisfied. Sixty percent of respondents feel America is "in a state of decline" and 76 percent lack confidence that the next generation will have a better life.

Fifty-four percent agreed with the statement, "The widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else is undermining the idea that every American has the opportunity to move up to a better standard of living."

There isn't much doubt who Americans blame for economic underperformance, as 71 percent agree with the statement, "These are mostly problems with the inability of elected officials in Washington to get things done to help improve the economy."

Fifty-two percent agree the economy has improved somewhat, but 49 percent think the economy is still in recession. 

Frank Bruni, a columnist for the New York Times, said the poll results reflect a "negative mindset" and seething anger and alienation by a majority of Americans.

"Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going," Bruni wrote. "But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the President, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope, but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess."