Summary of Findings

One month into President Obama’s administration, Americans on balance say the government is on the right track in the way it is handling the nation’s difficult economic problems.

Nearly half (47%) says the government is on the right track in the way it is handling economic problems, while about a third (34%) says it is on the wrong track, according to the latest News Interest Index survey conducted Feb. 20-23 by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The survey was completed before Obama’s address this week to Congress. While there are significant partisan differences in these opinions, the share that says the government is on the right track is up 16 points from 31% in mid-January, just prior to Obama’s inauguration.

Last week, the public continued to track a number of economic policy developments very closely. Final passage of the $787 billion economic stimulus legislation was the top story in terms of news interest. Roughly four-in-ten (41%) say they followed final action on the economic stimulus bill very closely, while 35% named this story as the news item they followed most closely – by far the highest percentage for any of the week’s stories.

Reporting on the economy and government efforts to stop the slide collectively accounted for more than 40% of the newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

Government’s Handling of Economy

With Democrats now in control of both the White House and the Congress, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to see the government heading in the right direction in its handling of economic problems. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats (73%) say the government is on the right track, up 31 points from mid-January. Last month, 39% of Democrats said the country was on the wrong track. Now, 9% say the same.

The views of Republicans, meanwhile, are largely unchanged: 19% said the government was on the right track in January; 23% say the same now. The proportion of independents that says the government is on the right track is now a 41% plurality, up from 28% in January.

Americans who say they have been tracking news about the economic policy proposals very closely are more likely to say that the government is on the “wrong track” than those who say they are less attentive to news about what the government is doing. Nearly half (48%) of those who tracked the week’s economic policy news very closely – final passage of the stimulus, the aid request by U.S. automakers, Obama’s housing proposal and decisions on financial bailout funds – say the government is on the wrong track in its handling of the economy; 38% of this group say the government is on the right track.

By contrast, only about third (32%) of those who are less attentive to economic policy stories say that the government is on the wrong track, while a plurality of this group (48%) says the government is on the right track.

Tough Words for Wall Street

When asked what “comes to mind when you hear the term ‘Wall Street,’” a plurality (42%) offered non-judgmental descriptions, but other responses give a sense of the anger directed at those in the financial sector and frustration over soured investments. One-in-ten specifically mention greed or excess, while a similar share (9%) refers to some form of thievery or corruption.

The share saying that greed comes to mind is up substantially from a 1998 CBS News survey. At that time, just 2% offered the word “greed.” The notion of corruption and references to “crooks” and “thieves” did not make the 1998 list.

The range of responses reflect the public concern and worry about the fate of the financial sector and people’s investments: 13% offer responses that get at the impact and causes of the financial crisis. For example, 2% cite mismanagement by business or government, 2% cite bailouts, 2% cite money losses, 2% say “failed” or “failure” and smaller percentages use words such as “trouble,” “disaster,” “broke” and “frightening.”

Economic News Continues to Dominate Interest and Coverage

In a week filled with talk of policy proposals aimed at lifting the nation’s economy from crisis, the public focused most closely on President Obama signing the economic stimulus legislation into law. For more than a third (35%) of the public, the stimulus was the story they followed more closely than any other news last week. In terms of news coverage, the stimulus dropped from 28% of the newshole two weeks ago – when lawmakers were negotiating a compromise package – to 9% of total news last week, according to PEJ.

News about action on the stimulus was comparable to coverage of Obama’s plan to help homeowners facing foreclosure, which accounted for 10% of the newshole last week. The housing proposal, estimated to cost as much as $275 billion, attracted the very close attention of 31% of the public. For one-in-ten Americans, this was the story they followed most closely last week.

Reports that General Motors and Chrysler are seeking billions of dollars in new emergency loans from the government was the top story of the week for 8% of the public. Reports about the automakers’ restructuring troubles and their request for billions in loans accounted for 6% of the newshole. Meanwhile, debate in Washington over how to use the remaining funds approved last fall for securing the nation’s financial sector attracted less public interest than the other economic policy news. One-in-four (25%) followed debate over the financial bailout funds very closely and 6% of the public followed this story more closely than any other last week.

Three-in-ten (31%) say they followed news very closely about the stock market’s slide to one of its lowest points in a decade. That share was down from the 50% that said they followed very closely the big drop in the Dow in late November. Still, 11% say this was their top story of last week.

Meanwhile, Obama’s executive order to send an additional 17,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan attracted the very close attention of one-in-five (27%) Americans. This was the most closely followed story of the week for 6% of the public.

These findings are based on the most recent installment of the weekly News Interest Index, an ongoing project of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The index, building on the Center’s longstanding research into public attentiveness to major news stories, examines news interest as it relates to the news media’s coverage. The weekly survey is conducted in conjunction with The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, which monitors the news reported by major newspaper, television, radio and online news outlets on an ongoing basis. In the most recent week, data relating to news coverage were collected from February 16-22, 2009 and survey data measuring public interest in the top news stories of the week were collected February 20-23, 2009 from a nationally representative sample of 1,004 adults.

About the News Interest Index

The News Interest Index is a weekly survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press aimed at gauging the public’s interest in and reaction to major news events.

This project has been undertaken in conjunction with the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, an ongoing content analysis of the news. The News Coverage Index catalogues the news from top news organizations across five major sectors of the media: newspapers, network television, cable television, radio and the internet. Each week (from Sunday through Friday) PEJ compiles this data to identify the top stories for the week. The News Interest Index survey collects data from Friday through Monday to gauge public interest in the most covered stories of the week.

Results for the weekly surveys are based on telephone interviews among a nationwide sample of approximately 1,000 adults, 18 years of age or older, conducted under the direction of ORC (Opinion Research Corporation). For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, one should bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of opinion polls, and that results based on subgroups will have larger margins of error.

For more information about the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s News Coverage Index, go to