- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2014

U.S. consumers are feeling more confident than they have since the Great Recession, but that does not provide much advantage to President Obama or the incumbent legislators on the ballot Tuesday, according to recent economic surveys.

That is because the severe job and financial difficulties many Americans experienced during and after the recession convinced most that the economy has permanently changed for the worse, and they blame current political leaders in Washington for failing to do much about it or even making things worse.

“The recession has cast a long, dark shadow on the opinions and experiences of Americans,” said Cliff Zukin, co-author of a recent Rutgers University report, “Unhappy, Worried and Pessimistic: Americans in the Aftermath of the Great Recession.”

A drop in unemployment to below 6 percent this summer, falling gasoline prices and a pick-up in growth that boosted consumer sentiment to a seven-year high this month, according to a University of Michigan survey on Friday. But most workers also continue to experience stagnant wages, a decline in living standards and poor job prospects, or have taken other turns for the worse that continue to worry and depress them, the Rutgers study found.

The record gains on Wall Street have lifted a few wealthy Americans, but left most others behind. The Rutgers survey found only about 40 percent of Americans said they were in good or excellent financial shape.

“The vast majority of Americans see the recession as having wrought fundamental and lasting changes across a wide number of areas of economic and social life,” Mr. Zukin said, “including the affordability of college, the age at which people are able to retire, workers’ job security, and retirees having to work part time.”

Fully 71 percent of Americans say the recession left “a permanent change in what are normal economic conditions in the country,” he said. “That represents a broad consensus” that has been difficult to shake for political leaders from either party, he said.

“The general feeling that the Great Recession has fundamentally changed American life for the worse is not a media-based or externally-based perception of reality,” he said. “Rather, it is firmly anchored in personal experience. Two-thirds of all adults say the recession had an impact on their own standard of living, a staggering number in American society.”

With few Americans expecting things to improve soon, the public’s gloomy views on the economy have created a toxic outlook for Mr. Obama and other political leaders. Three-quarters of the public say they have little or no confidence that Washington will make progress over the next year on the most important problems facing the nation.

Blame for Congress

While 54 percent disapprove of Mr. Obama’s handling of his job, Congress gets even more blame in the Rutgers survey, with only 14 percent saying they approve of the job being done by the Senate and House of Representatives.

“Given the persistent gridlock and partisan wrangling in the political system, it is little wonder that the public has almost no confidence that the government in Washington, D.C. can fix the issues plaguing the nation,” Mr. Zukin said.

While Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats appear to be taking the brunt of the public’s criticism in this election, Republicans may find the sour mood persists should they take control of the Senate in the next Congress, the survey found.

Just 26 percent said the Republicans gaining control would bring about policies that would lower the unemployment rate, while 3 in 10 said their policies would make unemployment worse. Forty-four percent said Republican control wouldn’t make any difference.

Despite the deep pessimism exhibited in the Rutgers survey, Richard Curtin, director of the more upbeat University of Michigan survey Friday, said he detected a note of optimism finally creeping into consumers’ mindsets thanks to the marked improvement of the economy this year.

“Consumers have been gradually regaining their economic footing in the past several months,” he said, and have been inclined to look past dire international developments such as the Ebola crisis and the global economic slowdown and focus on the improving job market and falling gas prices.

“Finally, five years after the start of the recovery, consumers have begun to adopt the expectations and behaviors that have driven past expansions,” Mr. Curtin said.

But Gerald Celente, analyst at Trends Research Institute, said it will be hard to overcome the entrenched view that the recession permanently changed the economy for the worse.

“What makes this pessimistic view especially dramatic is that in 2009, when the recession was officially ending, only 50 percent of Americans shared this sense of gloom,” he said.

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