by Jodie T. Allen, Senior Editor, Pew Research Center

Uncle Sam

What a difference eight years can make — or not. Between the final days of the presidency of Bill Clinton and the current wrapping up of the administration of George W. Bush, many changes have occurred in the state of the nation’s polity and economy. And yet, as shown in the tables below, others things, most notably certain American beliefs and attitudes, have remained remarkably constant.

No question the overall mood of the public has changed a great deal since Bush was elected president in the fall of 2000. A mere 13% of Americans are now satisfied with the way things are going in the country, compared with 55% eight years ago. And while 61% applauded at Clinton’s curtain call, only 24% approve of Bush’s performance as he leaves the national stage. Still, the U.S. Congress, now controlled by Democrats, fares no better in public esteem: fewer than one in five now approve of its job performance, down from a 56%-majority that gave it the thumbs up in 2000.


By the end of 2000, concerns had mounted that the good times of the late 1990s were at an end. Still Americans were far less pessimistic about the state of the economy than they are currently. At the start of Bush’s tenure, the number judging the economy as good or better stood at 46%. Now a meager 7% voice that opinion. About three-in-four Americans now see jobs as hard to find in their communities compared with 44% in 2000. And standard measures of consumer outlook have also plummeted: the just-released Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index weighed in at 38.0, its lowest level since the index was first tabulated in 1967.

Dominating the down side of the ledger are the statistics that measure the nation’s economic health. The unemployment rate at the close of 2000 measured a comfortable 3.9%. By November 2008, it had reached 6.7%, a level that did not, in itself, reflect the still larger rise in labor force dropouts and part-time workers who would have preferred full-time jobs. Including them raises the current jobless count to 12.5%, far higher than the comparable 6.9% rate that prevailed eight years ago. And while the economy enjoyed a gain of 1.9 million jobs during Clinton’s last full year in office, the last 12 months for which data are available produced a net loss of virtually equivalent magnitude (larger, if only private sector jobs are counted).


On the brighter side, the inflation rate has shrunk to scarcely 1%, thanks in part to sagging consumer demand. And while average gas prices over the year were far higher than eight years ago, peaking above $4 a gallon in July, their hasty retreat to about the same low level that prevailed in 2000 has taken some pressure off consumers’ wallets. Moreover, until recently, the U.S. economy continued to grow over most of Bush’s two-terms in office; the Gross National Product, measured in constant dollars, rose by some 19% over the period. But the U.S. population also grew rapidly so that GDP per capita rose by only 11%, about 1% a year compounded. And because income gains were larger at the top rungs of the income ladder, median income — the level above and below which half of the nation’s households fall — actually declined slightly over the period.

Despite their straitened means, neither Americans — nor their government — lost their taste for shopping. Indeed, both went on consuming at record rates over the period. As a result both federal and consumer debt escalated. The Gross National Debt climbed to more than $10 trillion by the end of FY2008 (not including the expected trillion-dollar stimulus package), while consumers, despite some recent belt-tightening, ran some $2.6 trillion dollars into the red. Meanwhile the nation kept on piling up debts owed to foreigners, adding $177 billion to the total during the latest 12 months on record.


Still, if anything, Americans’ trademark optimism has been strengthened by adversity. A 56%-majority expects their own family finances to improve over the coming year — essentially the same proportion who thought that eight years ago, and fully 68% agree that Americans can always solve their problems — a sizeable increase from the 59% who espoused that view in the fall of 2000. And despite the headline-making business scandals of the period — from Enron to Madoff — the public remains split (47% to 43%) on whether government regulation is needed to protect the public interest or usually does more harm than good, a divide essentially unchanged since the turn of the century.

On the home front, the same small minority (roughly a quarter of the public) thinks women should retreat to their traditional roles. Nor has there been any real shift in views on whether abortion should be legal. However, skepticism has increased somewhat about the role of the clergy in politics — a slight majority (52%) now thinks that churches and other houses of worship of worship should stay out of politics.

Meanwhile, three-in four Americans now go online, most frequently to check out the news and get health information. That’s up from slightly more than half (57%) who did so at the turn of the century. The ’08 campaign also saw the internet claim a leading role in the dissemination of campaign news, especially among younger adults, while surpassing newspapers and all other media except television as a primary outlet for national and international news generally. And nearly three-in-ten adults now use the internet to seek investment advice at least once a week, which may or may not tell you something about the market’s roller-coaster ride over the Bush years.



1 Satisfied with the way things are going in this country today. Pew Research Center for the People & the Press surveys, Jan. 2001 and Dec. 2008. (All Pew surveys cited in the following endnotes were conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press unless otherwise noted.)

2 Approve of the way Bill Clinton is handling his job as president, Pew survey, Jan. 2001; approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president, Pew survey, Dec. 2008.

3 Gallup surveys, Dec. 2-4, 2000 and Nov. 13-16, 2008.

4 Think Bill Clinton will go down in history as an outstanding (12%) or above average (32%) president. Pew survey, Jan. 2001; think George W. Bush will go down in history as outstanding president, Pew Survey, Dec. 2008.

5 Gallup survey, March 5-7, 2001 and Pew survey, Dec. 2008.

6 Overall opinion of George W. Bush ivery or mostly favorable, Pew survey, Jan. 2001; overall opinion of Obama very or mostly favorable, Gallup survey, Nov.6-7, 2008.

7High Marks for Campaign, High Bar for Obama,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, Nov. 13, 2008.

8 Gallup surveys, 1/15-16/2001 and Nov. 07-09, 2008.

9 Conference Board Index of Consumer Sentiment, Dec. 2000 (rev.), Los Angeles Times, January 31, 2001 and Dec. 2009 (prelim.) Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, Index of Consumer Sentiment for Dec. 2000 and Dec. 2008. The index was up from 55.3 in November but well below last December’s 75.5 and the cyclical peak of 96.9 set in January 2007.

10 GDP in chained 2000 dollars. Data for 2008 are third quarter, seasonally adjusted annualized. Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Dept. of Commerce.

11 Bureau of the Census population estimates for 2000 and 2008.

12 U.S. Bureau of the Census, annual estimates for July 2000 and July 2008.

13 “Now” data are for 2007; income data for 2008 are not yet available although, in view of the economic downturn it is likely that, at best, the household median income did not rise appreciably over the last year. Computed from Census data by Jared Bernstein, Economic Policy Institute.

14 Consumer Price Index, percent change Dec. ’99-Dec’00 for 2000, Nov.’07-Nov.’08 for 2008, Bureau of Labor Statistics. The decline of 1.7 percentage points from the October rate was the largest recorded since the government began compiling the CPI in 1947. The 2008 inflation rate peaked at 5.60% in July before oil prices collapsed.

15 Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates for Dec. 2000 and Nov. 2008, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dept. of Labor.

16 Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates including labor force dropouts who want to be employed as percent of civilian labor force, Dec. ’00 and Nov. 08, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Labor.

17 Seasonally adjusted unemployment rates including labor force dropouts who want to be employed, part-time workers desiring full-time work and marginally attached workers. Dec. ’00 and Nov. 08, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Dept. of Labor.

18 Avg. for weeks ending Dec. 29, 2000 and Dec. 26, 2008. Federal Reserve Board. The federal funds rate, now at an historical low, is the interest rate that banks and other financial institutions typically charge each other for overnight loans of reserves. It is the rate targeted by the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) at its monthly meetings.

19 Avg. for weeks ending Dec. 29, 2000 and Dec. 26, 2008. Federal Reserve Board.

20 Total Gross Federal Debt Outstanding, FY 2000 and FY2008. Includes both debt owed to the public ($3.4 trillion in FY2000 and $5.8 trillion in FY2008) and debt owed to federal government accounts, primarily federal trust funds such as Social Security, that invest their excess receipts in federal securities ($2.2 trillion in FY2000 and $$4.2 trillion in FY2008). By the end of calendar year 2008, federal debt had climbed to about $10.7 trillion, with analysts predicting that the debt will grow by as much as $2 trillion in the coming year once the full economic stimulus package is enacted. (“U.S. Debt Expected To Soar This Year,” Washington Post, 1/3/2009.)

21 Federal Reserve Board October data for 2008, ; December data for 2000. Federal Reserve data for Oct. 2008 and Dec. 2000. Excludes loans secured by real estate. After the the first recorded decline in household indebtedness in Q3 of 2008, consumer credit fell further in October, a drop accounted for by reductions in non-revolving credit such as loans for automobiles, mobile homes, education, boats, or vacations. Revolving credit (including credit cards) was essentially unchanged.

22 The U.S. Current Account Deficit is the sum of the balances on foreign trade in goods and services, income and net unilateral current transfers. Data for end of 4th quarter 2000 and 3rd quarter 2008 Bureau of Economic Analysis. In Q3 of 2008 – for which data were released on 12/17/08 –, the deficit on trade in goods equaled $215 billion down slightly from $216 billion in Q2.

23 Dow Jones Industrial Index at close on 12/29/2000 and 12/31/2008.

24 Average nominal price per gallon including taxes, U.S. city avg. for 2000 and for the first 11 months of 2008. The average for Nov. 2008 reached a low of $2.21 for the year, nearly $2.00 below the peak of $4.14 recorded in July.

25 Annualized rates for December 2000 and November 2008. Bureau of the Census.

26 Annualized rates for Dec. 2000 and Nov. 2008, National Assn. of Realtors. Existing home sales in November were down 8.6% from October and 10.6% from a year earlier. Home construction hit a record low in November after taking its biggest one-month fall in 24 years. And in October Prices of U.S. single-family homes in October posted a record fall of 18.0 percent from a year earlier, according to the closely watched Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller Home Price Indices.

27 Pew surveys, June 2001 and Dec. 2008.

28 Newsweek survey, Jan. 2001 and Pew survey, Dec. 2008.

29 Pew surveys June 2000 andDec. 2008.

30 Pew surveys, Jan. 11, 2001 and Dec. 2008; percent who say that over the course of the next year, they think their family financial situation will improve a lot or some.

31 Pew surveys, Aug. 1999 and Dec. 2008.

32 Pew surveys, Sept. 2000 and Dec. 2008.

33 Pew surveys, Aug. 1999 and Dec. 2008.

34 Pew surveys, Sept. 2000 and Dec. 2008.

35 Pew Social Trends Survey, April 2008 and Pew People & Press survey, July-November 1999; percent who mostly or completely agree that women should return to their traditional roles in society.

36 ABC/Washington Post survey January 2001 and Pew Forum/People-Press Religion and Public Life Survey, August 2008.

37 Pew Forum/People-Press Religion and Public Life Survey, August 2008 and Pew survey September 2000.

38 Pew Forum/People-Press Religion and Public Life Survey, August 2008 and Pew survey early Oct. 2001.

39 Ibid.

40 Pew Internet & American Life Project surveys, 2000, 2007 and 2008.

41 Internet Overtakes Newspapers as News Source, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, Dec. 2008.

42 Pew survey, Nov. 20, 2008.