- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Americans in the fifth month of President Bush’s second term have been in a sour mood about many things, from gas prices to jobs to perceived gridlock in Congress.

Mr. Bush’s most recent job approval polls have been below 50 percent (he is experiencing his lowest economic score in two years). Congress’ scores dropped significantly. And perceptions of the country’s overall health have moved deeper into the “wrong track” category.

But perceptions aren’t facts. Poll questions often tend to lead responses by their very nature, and the snapshot answers they get may not accurately reflect where the country is right now.

Still, by the end of April, things didn’t look so hot. Gas prices were up to an average of $2.25 a gallon for regular. Oil was gushing toward $57 a barrel. The March jobs report was weak. Consumer confidence was down sharply to the lowest levels since fall 2003.

But things can change. The Labor Department’s jobs report earlier this month showed 274,000 jobs were added to April payrolls, keeping the U.S. jobless rate at 5.2 percent, which most economists consider virtually full employment.

In addition, the payroll survey revised job gains in March to 146,000, up from a previous 110,000 estimate, and 300,000 for February, up from its 243,000 estimate.

The economy created 3 million net new jobs in the last two years. Incomes increased, too. Average hourly earnings rose in April to $16, up from March’s $15.95, exceeding forecasts.

Suddenly, the economy doesn’t seem to be in a “soft patch,” as some observers say. Indeed, the consensus now is “the economy is back on track,” says Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services.

Oil prices receded somewhat last week as OPEC boosted production, resulting in sliding gas prices.

But how to explain the public’s gloomy mood in the earlier surveys? I asked that of a number of pollsters last week, and their answers were instructive about the country’s present political atmospherics.

“There is not any one thing that may be driving down the American spirit, but there are a number of things that have not gone well,” says Andrew Kohut, Pew Research Center polling director. “All add up to a mild case of crankiness. I don’t think things are surging or plummeting” in either direction.

Independent pollster John Zogby thinks perceived softness in the economy, gas prices, the ongoing violence in U.S.-occupied Iraq and the political battles in Congress have combined into a critical mass that unsettled Americans.

But America’s shifting mood can differ dramatically from state to state. “Depression,” says Michigan Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus when asked to sum up the mood in a state where unemployment is a dismal 7 percent.

In a GOP red state like Indiana, however, Mr. Bush’s overall job approval rating is 55 percent.

So the national poll numbers may have more to do with the country’s continuing political divisions, Mr. Zogby told me. “We are still split apart, we are ideologically and culturally two nations,” he said. “Things haven’t changed since the election.” “It’s striking to me how many 48-48 or 45-45 [percent] numbers come up on almost anything,” he said.

Poll numbers were surprisingly gloomy on the economy, which grew at a respectable 3.1 percent in the first quarter. According to a USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll last month, 59 percent believed economic conditions were getting worse.

“One in 5 are afraid of losing their jobs. That’s higher than usual. It’s usually 1 in 7,” Mr. Zogby said.

Notably, however, he finds “people are generally optimistic about the future. I am surprised when they tell us they are optimistic about their own future. The numbers are higher than they were a couple of years ago.”

That’s why my sense is that as the economic numbers improve, as they appear to be doing, so will the country’s mood.

“Public opinion lags behind economic reality,” Georgia pollster Whit Ayres told me. “For the past three months, we’ve been inundated by stories about rising gas prices, a slowing economy, a large deficit, the impending bankruptcy of Social Security, gridlock over judges,” he said.

“All that has created a bit of sourness in the public mood right now,” Mr. Ayres says. “It’s nothing like a major depression in public opinion, but more of a momentary indigestion.”

I think he’s right. Look for the polls to begin showing some improvement as soon as economic reality sets in.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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