WASHINGTON — A plurality of Americans now say they are better off than they were when President Barack Obama was inaugurated, providing a surprising lift to Obama’s re- election campaign despite troublesome economic news.
Forty-five percent of those surveyed in a Bloomberg National Poll say they are better off than at the beginning of 2009 compared with 36 percent who say they are worse off. In March, poll respondents split almost evenly on that question after having been decidedly negative since the aftermath of the worst recession in seven decades.
“I’m just tired of the doom and gloom,” says Jim Seeley, 52, a mortgage banker in Traverse City, Mich., and a poll respondent, in a follow-up interview. “I think it’s looking better. People just need to stay positive.”
The poll, conducted June 15-18, contains more unlikely cheer for the president, with larger numbers of respondents saying their household income is higher than a year ago. While 44 percent say they are treading water, the better off outnumbered the worse off by 28 percent to 22 percent.
The share saying they are making substantial purchases they had been delaying, dining out more often, or taking deferred vacations all rose compared with March 2011. Seeley and his wife are among them. Earlier this year, the couple went on a seven- day cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, joining 27 percent of respondents who say they are taking postponed trips compared with 20 percent in March 2011.
The poll of 1,002 adults was conducted for Bloomberg News by Selzer &Co. of Des Moines, Iowa. The results have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
The poll’s findings of respondents’ brightening assessments of how they’re doing are at odds with recent data. The latest figures on industrial production, consumer confidence, initial jobless claims and retail sales all showed a weakening economy. Since the last Bloomberg National Poll in March, the Standard and Poor’s 500 Index is down about 1 percent.
About the only recent positive news for consumers has been a steady two-month decline in gasoline prices. Since peaking at $3.94 a gallon on April 5, regular unleaded gasoline has fallen to $3.50, according to AAA.
“Even as the market signals continuing softness in the economy, gloom at the personal level seems to have bottomed out,” says J. Ann Selzer, who directs the Bloomberg poll.
There are hints of unease in the findings: 32 percent of Americans say they’re hopeful about improvement in the economy, down from 37 percent in March. And 19 percent say they’re fearful, compared with 17 percent three months ago.
Major Wall Street banks last week underscored the economy’s subpar outlook. Goldman Sachs cut its second-quarter tracking estimate for growth to 1.6 percent from 1.8 percent. Morgan Stanley sliced its 2012 estimate to 2 percent from 2.3 percent and said the economy likely would slow further in 2013.
Even with the run of bad reports, Americans say they prefer Obama’s economic vision to that of his presumptive Republican rival, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, by a margin of 49 percent to 33 percent. That finding reflects a 7-percentage- point gain for Obama since March and an equal loss for his opponent, identified then as “Republicans” and in this survey as Romney.
“You don’t just trust the private sector to do the right thing,” says Chris Howell, 23, who works at a nonprofit organization in West Chester, Pa. Obama’s policies are better suited to providing “long-term solutions” for the economy’s problems, he added.
Obama gets poor marks from some respondents for his handling of the nation’s economic situation.
“He’s done a hatchet job on the economy,” says Larry Wilson, 49, a production supervisor at a corrugated box maker in Lancaster, Pa.
Wilson complains that prices are outstripping his salary and that the president is stifling business with excessive regulation. He’s anticipating a Romney presidency that will repair the damage.
“I expect him to do something similar to what Reagan did: exude some confidence in the American people, not government,” Wilson says.
The public also has flip-flopped on its view of the appropriate government role in the economy since the March 2011 Bloomberg poll.
Fifteen months ago, as congressional Republicans pressed the White House to agree to deep budget cuts, a majority of poll respondents echoed the party’s argument that government should focus on deficit-cutting. Now that the presidential choice has narrowed to Obama or Romney, Americans by a margin of 51 percent to 43 percent are endorsing the administration’s call to invest in infrastructure and alternative energy projects to boost hiring.
“I’m a Keynesian,” says Dale Phillips, 60, a management consultant in Houston. “Government does play a role.”
Phillips is among those counting themselves better off. His six-figure salary has risen about 15 percent since the recession’s depths in early 2009.
The improving public mood remains precarious and, in some cases, should be characterized as less awful rather than better. A plurality of poll respondents still expect American children to have a lower standard of living than their parents do. Yet the 45 percent to 28 percent margin is narrower than a year ago, when 55 percent expected the next generation’s living standards to drop compared with only 23 percent who retained their faith in the American Dream.
And amid indications that the decline in housing prices may be at or near an end, 14 percent of respondents say the market value of their home increased in the past year compared with 33 percent who say it declined. The last time that question was asked, in December 2009, only 8 percent said their home’s value had increased.
Americans also split about evenly over changes in their overall sense of financial security in the past year, with the largest share, 47 percent, reporting no change.
“I’m hopeful for improvement, but I temper that with pragmatism,” says Catherine Lahey, 28, a sports marketing executive in DeLand, Fla.
After 40 consecutive months of a jobless rate higher than 8 percent, Americans in general, too, are slowly growing less anxious about employment. Those reporting improved job security for people in their household rose to 19 percent, still less than the 22 percent saying their hold on employment is shakier.
That divide reflected an improvement from December 2009, when those who said their job security was worsening outweighed those feeling more secure 28 percent to 7 percent.
“I started working full time and making more money,” says Nathan Blubaugh, 25, a mental health counselor in Media, Pa. “Things are getting better. They’re not getting better quickly, but they’re getting better.”