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November 11, 2015

Long-term decline in American optimism unlikely to be halted by good news on the economy

There was a string of good news on the US economy this week, with unemployment dropping to its lowest level in four years, a significant rise in consumer spending, and a new high for the S&P 500 stock-market index. But GlobeScan’s most recent public tracking data shows that a major turnaround will be needed if Americans are to rediscover their traditional optimism about their country’s future.

The proportion of Americans who feel that their country is headed in the right direction has been on a long-term decline for over a decade. Whereas in 2001 (before the September 11 attacks) more than half of Americans felt positive about the way things in the USA were going, this has fallen on each occasion we have tracked it, until by the end of 2012 this proportion stood at less than one-third. As this chart shows, optimism in the US is now at a lower level than in four other major developed economies—Canada, Australia, Germany, and the UK.

What is striking is that the major decline in American national optimism took place before the economic crisis of 2007/8. This suggests that a level of political polarization unprecedented in modern times, the ongoing perception of am increased terrorist threat, and a longer-term shift of economic power away from the USA may be as influential as the more recent acute economic malaise in shaping the way Americans feel about their country. It also suggests that Barack Obama should not count on the signs of economic recovery to usher in a new era of positive sentiment.

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