by Michael Dimock and Jodie T. Allen

There comes a time in the life of every recent president when public satisfaction with the way things are going in the country drops below 30%. A new Gallup poll released this week marks the first crossing of that unwelcome threshold for the administration of George W. Bush.

In the last few decades, this kind of rise in public discontent has typically been associated with an economic downturn, sometimes aggravated by an unpopular event on the foreign policy scene. In 1979, for example, President Jimmy Carter was hit by the double whammy of long lines and high prices at the gas pump and the seizure of U.S. hostages in Iran, producing an historic low of 12% in public satisfaction with the way things were going in the country. For Ronald Reagan in 1981, the onset of the deepest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s did the trick.

During George H.W. Bush’s tenure, the launching of the Persian Gulf War briefly turned the tide of falling public satisfaction – which shot up to 66% in February of 1991. But, having celebrated Saddam Hussein’s retreat from Kuwait, the public turned its attention to the by-then clear indicators of another economic slump, whereupon Bush Sr. witnessed the fastest drop in public contentment of all recent presidents. The Clinton administration inherited that bad economy and had a bumpy first year with respect to gays in the military and health care reform. The public’s gloomy outlook lingered more or less until the reality of the economic boom of the second half of the 1990s was manifest.

The current period, like some earlier periods of discontent, plays out against a backdrop of growing misgivings about events abroad–in this case the war in Iraq. But three factors distinguish today’s ebb in the public’s mood. The first is that the decline has occurred over a long period of time, starting from a high point of 70-percent national satisfaction in the post-9/11 rally-round-the-flag days of late 2001. The second is that, during this nearly five-year period, the economy, far from being in retreat, has been in mostly good shape, judging by the major economic indicators. And third is the sharp partisan divide in how people judge the condition of the nation, a division seen in many other public attitudes and opinions.

Under previous administrations, when overall satisfaction fell below 30% there was a general consensus across party lines that things were not going well. While the president’s partisans tended to be less disgruntled about the state of the nation than those in opposition, majorities on both sides expressed dissatisfaction. (Independents tended to be discouraged, and in this regard agreed more with the party out of power than the president’s supporters – about where they are currently.)

But today, Republicans and Democrats are of entirely different minds and, in the current polarization, both parties are out of sync with the past. Six-in-ten Republicans (60%) are now satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared with just 9% of Democrats.

While Democrats were nearly as gloomy when overall satisfaction was at 24% under Bush Sr., they are now considerably more downbeat than they were when satisfaction reached 27% under Reagan. They are also more negative than Republicans were when satisfaction fell under Clinton and Carter. The resulting 51-point partisan gap is far larger than during any other slump in the public’s mood.