• U.S.

The Pessimism Index

5 minute read
Mark J. Penn

Just 10 years into a new century, more than two-thirds of the country sees the past decade as a period of decline for the U.S., according to a new TIME/Aspen Ideas Festival poll that probed Americans on the decade since the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda seriously weakened, but the impact of the 9/11 attacks and the decisions that followed have, in the view of most Americans, put the U.S. in a tailspin that the country has been unable to shake during two administrations and almost 10 years of trying.

The poll confirms that the country is going through one of its longest sustained periods of unhappiness and pessimism ever. Today’s teenagers hardly remember a time before 9/11, the war on terrorism, the war in Iraq and constant economic upheaval. Baby boomers, the generation known for continuous reinvention, are filled with worry and doubt about their future and the future of their children.

(See TIME’s cover story: “The Optimism Bias.”)

It is hard to overstate what a fundamental change this represents. A country long celebrated for its optimism amid adversity is having trouble finding the pluck and the spirit that have seen it through everything from world wars to nuclear threats to space races. The U.S. usually bounces back after a few years of difficulty, such as the Vietnam War, Watergate or recessions. After two or three years of anxiety and worry, the electorate normally returns to its innate optimism. Yet the forces now aligned against the American people seem much more formidable to those we surveyed; the poll uncovered the kinds of attitudes we saw among Europeans during the decade after World War II.

According to the poll, only 6% of more than 2,000 Americans believe the country has completely recovered from the events of 9/11. Some of this pessimism can be tied to fears of more terrorist attacks. Despite the death of bin Laden, most Americans think another terrorist attack in the U.S. is likely. Americans generally supported the post-9/11 measures to secure the homeland, like those in the Patriot Act, and have confidence in the military to deal with terrorists — and yet they see an attack coming anyway. America’s feelings of invincibility have been replaced by a new sense of inevitable vulnerability. Nearly 8 in 10 believe there will be a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the next decade. When asked which major city would most likely be the target of such an attack, 30% selected Washington and 27% chose New York City.

A startling 71%, including a majority of every major demographic group other than African Americans, see the U.S. as worse off now than it was a decade ago. Americans blame their leaders and politicians for the decade of decline. The Bush Administration takes the most heat — 23% named it as the cause — followed closely by the Obama Administration (20%) and the U.S. Congress (16%). In contrast, only 6% blame Wall Street.

(See the case for optimism in TIME’s special report: “10 Ideas That Will Change the World.”)

If there is widespread agreement that the U.S. is in bad shape, there is also a perception that not everyone has experienced the difficult decade in exactly the same way. Those surveyed say middle- and working-class Americans, followed by seniors and younger people, have borne the brunt of the decline — an ominous sign for any incumbent, regardless of political party. Yet those surveyed said some demographic groups were better off than they were a decade ago; they say the quality of life has improved most for gays and lesbians, the affluent, Hispanics and immigrants. And while overall the U.S. is seen as becoming more socially and politically tolerant in the past decade, the majority agreed that 9/11 set off a wave of suspicion against Muslim Americans.

Post-9/11 America is also a more isolationist country. Americans recognize that the election of President Obama brought with it a renewed sense of respect for the U.S. around the world. However, the effect of those improved relationships is overshadowed by the finding that most respondents have no desire to be more involved in global affairs. Almost two-thirds (62%) believe the U.S. today is too involved overseas. Americans are particularly impatient with U.S. policy toward Pakistan. With 69% believing that Pakistani officials knowingly harbored bin Laden, it is not surprising that 3 in 4 Americans — older Americans and Republicans especially — want the U.S. to cut back its military and nonmilitary aid to that country.

But whatever the U.S.’s worries about external forces, the biggest threats today are widely regarded as self-made. It’s the enemy within that Americans register the most concern about: runaway deficits, political gridlock, skyrocketing health care costs and other structural problems. A full two-thirds of Americans see the greatest long-term threats to national stability as coming from within the U.S. This too is an enormous change from the days and months after September 2001.

(See the U.S. optimism deficit.)

President Jimmy Carter — at the urging of his pollster — rather famously gave a speech in mid-1979 suggesting that a crisis of confidence had befallen America. It took several years and a new President to return the country to its optimistic ways. President Bill Clinton faced a similar moment in 1995 and turned the mood of the country around a year later. This poll suggests we are at another malaise moment, one even longer and deeper than the mid-1970s’, presenting even greater challenges — and opportunities — for leadership.

Penn is CEO of Penn Schoen Berland, the strategic-research firm that conducted the TIME/Aspen poll. He was a pollster for six years under President Clinton.

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