For all their differences, Americans largely agree on two things: 2009 was a lousy year for the nation, and 2010 is likely to be better. Nearly three-fourths of Americans think 2009 was a bad year for the country, which was rocked by job losses, home foreclosures and economic sickness. Forty-two percent rated it "very bad," according to the latest AP-GfK poll.
That's clearly worse than in 2006, the last time a similar poll was taken. The survey that year found that 58 percent of Americans felt the nation had suffered a bad year, and 39 percent considered it a good year.
Fewer than half as many people, 16 percent, said their family had a "very good year" in 2009 as said that in 2006.
Behind the gloominess, however, are more hopeful views that seem to reflect Americans' traditional optimism or, perhaps, wishful thinking.
Even though most said it was a bad year for the country, three in five Americans said their own family had a good year in 2009, while about two in five called it a bad year.
Some 72 percent of Americans said they're optimistic about what 2010 will bring for the country. Even more, four in five, are optimistic about what the year will bring for their families.
Curiously, however, nearly two-thirds think their family finances will worsen or stay about the same next year.
'Scared' but hopeful
Mari Flanigan of South Milwaukee, Wis., is one of those who feel fairly optimistic that things will go better at a personal level in 2010 even though her financial situation might grow worse.
Flanigan, 36, is unemployed after selling a family business that faced increasing competition. "Financially, I'm scared," she said in an interview.
Rather than seek new work, however, she is thinking of returning to school to become a social worker. "I'd rather make less money and do something I love," Flanigan said, noting that happiness and optimism are not strictly tied to finances.
Every corner of the country saw steep job losses this year, and the national unemployment rate stands at 10 percent. Millions of Americans saw their savings or retirement accounts shrink, and many are rethinking how long they will have to work, and where they might find income.
Marcia Andrews of Blairsville, Pa., was a high school nurse until budget cuts eliminated her job.
Andrews, 69, spent $250,000 to convert an old house into a bed-and-breakfast, but the drop in tourism forced her to put it up for sale.
"It was the wrong place and the wrong time," said Andrews, one of those surveyed in mid-December. On top of that, she lost money in the stock market.
Despite signs that the nation is edging away from the worst aspects of a severe recession, people remain largely downbeat about the economy. Fewer than half think the economy will get better in 2010, while slightly more than half think it will worsen or stay about the same.
Just over a third think their own family's finances will get better, while almost two-thirds think their finances will stay the same or get worse.
James Lewis, who just retired in Alton, Ill., called 2009 a "financial disaster" for America, and he fears 2010 won't be much better.
Lewis, 62, said of the past year: "Everything done wrong. Everybody losing their 401(k). Some people losing their house, their retirement."
He is pessimistic about 2010, pointing blame at financial institutions and government officials.
"They've made a mess and they're going to have a hard time cleaning it up," said Lewis, who calls himself a political independent. Government regulators, he said, "dropped the ball."
Lewis said 2009 wasn't too bad for him personally, but some members of his family "can't find a job that pays enough to live." He said he doesn't have much hope — "maybe a little" — that they will find work in 2010.
Outlook on wars
Americans are not optimistic about the nation's two wars. Thirty-one percent think the situation in Afghanistan will get better, while 67 percent think it stay the same or get worse. The results were about the same for Iraq.
Given that President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and Democrats enjoyed solid majorities in Congress, perhaps it's not surprising that Democrats have a sunnier view of the current and coming years than do Republicans.
Only 10 percent of Republicans said 2009 was a good year, compared to about one-third of Democrats and independents. A whopping 87 percent of Democrats are optimistic about what 2010 will bring for the country, compared with 53 percent of Republicans and 73 percent of independents.
People's views of their personal circumstances divide along partisan lines, too.
Only one in five Republicans think their family's finances will improve in 2010. Nearly half of Democrats and 40 percent of independents hold that view.
Steve Bishop, 59, of Middletown, Calif., said he's pleased the government is trying to overhaul the nation's health care system.
"At least we're addressing the problem finally, and it could be fine-tuned as we go on in later years," said Bishop, a Democrat and retired U.S. Forest Service manager.
For the nation, Bishop said, 2009 "was definitely better than 2008 because we're seeing the recovery of the economy." For him personally, he said, the year "was O.K."
He said his daughter went through furloughs, and his son-in-law lost some work in his construction job.
"But everyone still has a job, they still have health care, so in that sense it was probably good compared to other people," he said.
H. June Clark, a Republican retiree in Fort Wayne, Ind., had similar family experiences but is more downbeat than Bishop. And she has a warning for all politicians.
A daughter and her husband, both teachers, were laid off for part of 2009, said Clark, 82, who once worked as a server at a country club. Some family members are still out of work, she said.
She and her husband lost several thousand dollars in the stock market, Clark said. "But luckily we are retired and we own our home," she said. "It wasn't a desperate year."
Clark thinks the nation is headed toward socialism, and she wants a wholesale change in elected officials, no matter their party affiliation.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Dec. 10-14 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media and involved landline and cell phone interviews of 1,001 adults nationwide. It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.