WASHINGTON — It has been a long, hard year for many Americans, from the arrival of Covid-19 and the economic pain it brought to a contentious presidential election and post-election period. But as Covid-19 vaccination rates rise, key data points suggest something is lurking in the American electorate that we haven't seen for a while: optimism.
Opinions about the direction of the country and the direction of the economy have improved dramatically in the last few months — and the shift could have a political impact in Washington.
Gallup released data last week showing that the percentage of Americans who are satisfied with the direction of the country hit a nine-month high.
Cynics will rightly note that the number still isn't stellar. No one comes home from school to brag to their parents about getting 32 percent on a test. But it's the highest the figure has been since the pandemic began, tying the "satisfied" number from May. And low satisfaction has become a hallmark of 21st century America. The number has been in the 30s or lower, often far lower, for most of the past decade.
The nation's political tumult seems to have been a drag on the satisfaction score. Notably, the figure was rising in October, up to 28 percent, but it came crashing down in the post-election turmoil.
An 11 percent satisfaction number in January, just after the riot at the U.S. Capitol, was one of the lowest numbers on record. (The only lower figure, 7 percent, came in 2008, when the housing market was melting down.) The satisfaction score has improved by more than 20 points since then, suggesting that there's something to be said for calm and stability.
To be clear, there are still sharp partisan divides over the "satisfaction" question. In a late October Gallup survey, the "satisfaction" number was being driven entirely by Republicans. The most recent figures are being pushed by Democrats.
In October, 60 percent of Republicans were satisfied with the direction of the country, and only 3 percent of Democrats agreed. Now, 52 percent of Democrats are satisfied, compared to only 7 percent of Republicans.
But the latest numbers reflect more than just a simple partisan flip-flop. The latest data also show a 9-point bump among independents, which suggests a somewhat broader-based upturn in opinion.
And beyond the simple and somewhat nebulous idea of "satisfaction," there are more positive feelings about the economy, as well. The latest Index of Consumer Sentiment from the University of Michigan finds Americans feeling better about the economy than they have since last March.
The index is calculated through a monthly survey of 500 or more Americans that asks 50 core questions. And that figure, a score of 83, is still low, historically speaking. The index was in the 90s for most of the last four years before Covid-19.
But the uptick is particularly noteworthy not only because it's high for the last year, but also because it comes as more Americans are being vaccinated. It suggests that people believe things have gotten better and that they are set to improve more.
And last week brought some evidence to back that sunnier view as the "initial unemployment claims" number dropped to a post-pandemic low.
After it peaked at 6.8 million the week of March 28, 2020, the number came down sharply, and it has been bouncing around in the 725,000-to-780,000 range. Last week marked the first time the number had dipped below 700,000, clocking in at 684,000.
The latest dip could end up being a blip, of course, and the numbers could climb again, but the overall trend has been good recently. For the last few weeks, the number of initial claims has been at its lowest since October, before the Covid-19 spike over the holidays.
Any of those numbers would be good signs for the country, but when they are taken together, there's a larger trend. People seem to be feeling better about where the country is headed, and the numbers seem to suggest that there's some reason for that.
There's still a long way to go to dig out from the pandemic. There are still likely to be hurdles, but the current and somewhat abrupt shift in mood may have bigger meaning in 2021.
For decades, there has been a strong gravitational pull toward pessimism in politics that has been hard to overcome. As a new administration and Congress set about to addressing a long list of challenges, a positive electorate could make the task a little easier.