Perception is Everything, Isn’t it? (Or – Don’t Worry, be Happy!)

The Washington Post published a remarkable poll on Wednesday.  When asked “are you better off financially than you were when Obama became President?”, most people (54%) said they were in about the same shape, 30% said they were worse off, and only 15% said they were better off.

But when the same poll asked: “Regardless of whether the recession is over, based on personal experience, do you feel the economy has or has not begun to recover?” there were some surprising results.

Independents mirrored the moderately pessimistic results of the first question — 60% said the economy has not begun to recover, and only 40% saw signs of recovery.

But for Democrats, whoa!  66% said the recovery has begun, as against only 33% who said it has not.  Republicans, by contrast, were even gloomier than independents — fully 74% said the economy has NOT begun to recover, and only 26% said recovery was under way.

It appears that people’s views of President Obama are thus determining their views of the state of the economy — not the other way around, as we would expect.  Those who want Obama to succeed (my presumption for self-identified Democrats) have a more optimistic view of the economy, while those who want Obama to fail (my presumption for self-identified Republicans) seem determined to find the black cloud in the economy.

This is particularly surprising since everything we know about how the economy has affected different groups — blue-collar workers being hardest hit, business executives and bankers doing quite well — would suggest that the ‘personal experience’ of Democrats should be worse than that of Republicans.  Yet the poll results show the opposite.

It is difficult to explain the results of this poll and its departure from reality — it can’t be that 66% of one group (Democrats) see economic recovery while 74% of another group see no recovery in their personal experience. Rather, what we seem to have in reality is a weak, semi-recovery that is so feeble you can view it either as “cup half-full” or a “cup half-empty.”  That is, we don’t have an economic collapse nor a vigorous recovery, so people are unusually free to see things as they wish.

If the economy stays in this rut until the election, things will be difficult for the President.  He will still have Democratic support, but Republicans and Independents will still see the economy as yet having begun a ‘real’ recovery from their perspective.

Of course, one bit of advice that emerges from this poll is that to improve your economic outlook, all you have to do is become a Democrat — Independents would increase their optimism by more than half, while Republicans would triple their degree of economic optimism!   So become a Democrat, be happy!

About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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