Public’s Forecast: Reduced Partisanship

As Barack Obama prepares to take office, half of the public (50%) thinks that Republicans and Democrats in Washington will work together more to solve problems in the coming year, while 39% say they will bicker and oppose each other more than usual.

The public is more optimistic on this measure than it was eight years ago – at the start of George W. Bush’s first term in office – when 41% said the two parties would work together while 50% predicted more partisan bickering. Forecasts were even more downbeat at the start of Bush’s second term. In January 2005, just 30% said they thought party leaders would work together more, while a 59% majority expected increased opposition. Optimism for bipartisan cooperation has not topped 50% since January 2002 – shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks – when 53% of the country thought Republicans and Democrats would work together more cooperatively in the coming year.

Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to predict increased cooperation between the parties in the coming year. Nearly six-in-ten Democrats (59%) say partisans will work together more, compared with 40% of Republicans. In January 2001, more Republicans (51%) than Democrats (34%) anticipated improve
d partisan relations in Washington. In 2005, Republicans, Democrats and independents were all about equally skeptical that the two parties would work together more.

Fewer See Country as Politically Divided

In addition to greater optimism about bipartisan cooperation in Washington, fewer now describe the country as a whole as more politically divided than in the past. In the current survey, 46% say the country is more politically divided these days than in the past; about as many (45%) say the country is not more divided. The share of the public calling the country more politically divided has fallen 20 points since January 2007, when two-thirds (66%) saw greater political divisiveness.

Democrats and independents, in particular, are much less likely to say the country is politically divided than they were in January 2007. Currently, 36% of Democrats see the country as more politically divided than in the past – half the level of two years ago (72%). The proportion of independents who say the country is more politically divided has fallen by 18 points in the same period (from 67% to 49%). But 57% of Republicans say the country is more politically divided, which is little changed from two years ago (62%).

While the public senses less division at the national level, there has been only a modest shift in their own personal interactions. Currently, 47% of Americans say the people they know are more politically divided than in the past, down only slightly from 51% in 2007 and 53% in 2004. More Republicans (56%) than Democrats (42%) say the people they know are more politically divided than they used to be.

Most Are Optimistic About 2009

Not since Ronald Reagan in 1981 has a newly inaugurated president faced a public more dissatisfied with national conditions. Just 20% are satisfied with the way things are going in the country today, while 73% say they are dissatisfied. The measure of national satisfaction, while low historically, is higher than it was in October, when just 11% expressed a positive view of national conditions.

Despite the negative national mood, most Americans say that 2009 will be a better year than 2008. More than half (52%) say they think the current year will be an improvement on the one just passed, while 37% think 2009 will be worse than last year. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats (64%) say things will be better compared with 38% of Republicans. This is a reversal from the outlooks for the past two years, when Republicans were more optimistic than Democrats. More independents say 2009 will be better than say it will be worse (54% to 38%), which is comparable to independents’ expectations for 2008 and 2007.

When asked an open-ended question on why they think 2009 will be better or worse than 2008, respondents focused on two major themes: the economy and the transfer of power to a new administration. Among those who think 2009 will be a better year, fully 56% mentioned political change or the new administration as a reason for their optimism. While politics was by far the most common response, 14% cited optimism about the economy as a reason why 2009 will be better than 2008.

Those who think the coming year will be worse than 2008 mentioned the economy most often to explain why they feel that way. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) said the economy is the reason they think 2009 will be worse than 2008; Obama replacing Bush in the White House was mentioned by 17% of those who have a negative outlook for 2009.

Winners and Losers

The public has clear ideas about which groups will gain and lose influence under Barack Obama’s administration, and its assessment of likely winners and losers is vastly different than the list for the Bush administration eight years ago.

In the public’s mind, poor people, young people and blacks will gain influence under the Obama administration. Nearly three-quarters (73%) say that poor people will gain influence with Obama taking office, and 71% say the same about younger people.

Two-thirds (67%) believe blacks will gain influence; in January 1993, virtually the same percentage (66%) said they expected blacks to gain influence during Bill Clinton’s administration. Women are also seen as big winners with the Obama administration – 58% say they will gain influence in the coming years. Nearly half (46%) say that Hispanics will gain influence under Obama – just 9% say they will lose influence. And by a margin of 40% to 11%, more say gays and lesbians will also gain, rather than lose, influence.

In terms of organized interests, both environmentalists and union leaders are seen as gaining influence with the transition of power. Six-in-ten (60%) say environmentalists will gain influence by Obama taking office, while just 7% say they will lose influence. Somewhat fewer (46%) say that the influence of union leaders will increase; 18% say union leaders will lose influence under the new president.

With poor people topping the list of groups that will gain influence in the coming years, it may be no surprise that wealthy people are seen as the biggest losers. Just 17% of Americans say that wealthy people will gain influence with Obama in office, while a plurality (44%) says they will lose influence. Other groups seen as more likely to lose than gain influence in the coming years are: business corporations (42% lose, 29% gain); Washington lobbyists (38% lose, 21% gain); and conservative Christians (36% lose, 21% gain).

Comparing Administrations

Public perceptions of who would win and lose were starkly different as George W. Bush was taking office in January 2001. The military and business corporations were widely viewed as gaining influence, while a majority (51%) also said that conservative Christians would gain. The public again sees the military gaining, rather than losing, influence under Obama (37% gain vs. 26% lose), but by a much smaller margin than under Bush (72% gain vs. 4% lose).

In many cases, expectations for winners and losers under Obama mirror those expressed in January 1993 on the eve of Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Blacks are widely expected to gain influence under Obama, but virtually the same percentage said that just before Clinton took office in 1993 (67% Obama, 66% Clinton). By contrast, in January 2001 about as many thought blacks would lose influence (29%) as gain influence (30%) with Bush taking office.

Poor people and younger people also were predicted to be winners as Clinton took office in 1993, and expectations that these groups will gain influence are even more pronounced today. Environmentalists were predicted to gain influence under Clinton, as they are with Obama; a plurality thought environmentalists would lose influence under Bush. More people expected union leaders to gain rather than lose influence under Clinton (35% vs. 24%), but that view is more widely shared today (46% vs. 18%).

In January 1993, 34% predicted business corporations would gain influence under Clinton while a comparable percentage (33%) said they would lose influence. As Bush prepared to take office in 2001, 66% thought business corporations would gain influence and just 9% predicted they would lose influence. Today, a 42% plurality thinks that business corporations will lose influence, while 29% see their influence growing.

Opinions about whether children and older people will gain or lose influence have remained fairly stable across the past three presidential transitions. On balance, these groups have been seen as l
ikely to gain influence under Clinton, Bush and Obama.

Obama Benefits ‘People Like Yourself’

Perhaps the most critical question is how people see the new administration affecting people like themselves, and by this measure Obama is viewed quite favorably. Nearly half of Americans (47%) say that people like themselves will gain influence as he takes office, while just 18% say people like themselves will lose influence (29% say they will not be affected).

Public views were more mixed as Bush took office eight years ago – 35% felt people like themselves would gain influence, but 26% thought they would lose influence. During Clinton’s 1993 transition, 43% felt people like themselves would gain influence, and 22% though they would lose influence.

African Americans and young people are among the most upbeat about their influence in the coming years. Nearly eight-in-ten blacks (79%) say that people like themselves will gain influence, more than said this as Clinton (67%) prepared to take office, and far more than said this during Bush’s transition (30%). And 62% of people age 18-29 believe people like themselves will gain influence in the coming years. In 1993, 49% of young people said this, as did just 40% in 2001.