The average American’s sense of how things are going in the country, particularly with regard to the economy, is the most potent of political sentiments. The latest Federal Reserve survey finding slowed economic growth around the country underscores the potential political peril for new President George W Bush. When the public is satisfied, the president and his party enjoy the public’s support — often to an extraordinary degree. Witness Bill Clinton, whose serial scandals the public forgave in no small part because he presided over one of the great economic booms of the 20th Century. But other presidents — notably Jimmy Carter and George Bush — have suffered the public’s wrath when the economy sputtered on their watch.

For Bush, the economic climate is uncertain, and so is his relationship with the American public. Surveys of consumer confidence have been up and down over the past six months. The public clearly recognizes that the national economy is weaker than it was in the late 90’s. According to an ABC News/Money Magazine poll in July, only 51% rate the U.S. economy as in excellent or good shape, compared to 71% who saw it that way in January. The Gallup Organization has found an even more bearish trend, with only 41% of its respondents rating the national economy positively, down 30 points from the fourth quarter of 2000.

The important and qualifying caveat to sinking public confidence in the national economy is that most people remain hopeful that things will improve. This personal optimism has kept them spending, which in turn has kept the economy from tanking. The Pew Research Center’s national survey in June found 63% of respondents expecting their financial situation to be better over the next 12 months. That was actually higher than the 57% who expressed that view in January, but lower than the 72% who had been optimistic at the start of 1999. The ABC News/Money Magazine poll found only a slight decline in the average American’s inclination to spend money over the first six months of 2001. In fact, buying predispositions are off only modestly when compared to the more severe slide in attitudes toward the current state of the economy.