President Joe Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address next week to a country that has a pretty gloomy outlook on things. For the past two decades, Gallup has surveyed the American public on a collection of policy issues and broad perceptions of society in its annual “Mood of the Nation” poll. Average ratings hit record lows during the Covid-19 pandemic and have changed little in this year’s report, responses for which were collected in January.
In 2023, on average, only about a third (36%) of Americans said they were satisfied with a set of policy issues spanning all aspects of government. Among the lowest-rated issues was the state of the economy, which just a quarter of Americans said they were satisfied with. It had the largest year-over-year decline, dropping 8 percentage points. Satisfaction with gun laws dropped sharply this year, to a record low of 34%. Policies on abortion, efforts to control crime, quality of public education and efforts to combat poverty and homelessness also remained at or near low points.
“This notion of a sour mood that the country finds itself in — a pretty persistent one since Covid that the country hasn’t really bounced out of — is a challenge for our political leadership,” said David Chalian, CNN’s political director. “I don’t know that a president alone can really upend this.” Long-term trend data from Gallup suggests that there’s a deeper undercurrent affecting the public’s view of the country. Perceptions on specific issues can ebb and flow, said Lydia Saad, director of US social research at Gallup.
“These things bounce around a little bit more. It’s about how much we trust each party and who’s in power to handle these issues,” she said. But satisfaction with broader aspects of American life have been generally trending down for decades, through multiple administration changes and political party shifts. “There’s been a rise of polarization and decline in national harmony,” Saad said. “Our baseline was a simpler time when people were more content with the country, before a lot of events happened that we know have eroded trust over time.”
Perceptions of the overall quality of life in the US dropped to a record low in 2023, as did perceptions of wealth inequality. Less than a quarter of adults say they are satisfied with the way income and wealth are distributed in the US, according to the Gallup poll. There is some room for optimism, experts say.
Despite the decline, nearly two-thirds of the country (65%) still say they are satisfied with the overall quality of life, and more than half (61%) say there is opportunity for a person to get ahead by working hard. “Those are things to build on,” Saad said. “Despite all, people are still kind of gripping onto the American dream.” Pessimistic attitudes can be a challenge for incumbent political parties, Chalian said.
“When he addresses the country at his State of the Union next week, how does the President tout progress while also still giving voice to this very, very real sensation among Americans that things are not going quite as well as perhaps they felt they have in the past?” But they’re not always deterministic. “We just came through an election where the economy was issue number one and tended to favor Republicans,” Chalian said. “But there were other issues, like the sanctity and security of our democracy and abortion, that Democrats really rallied around and overperformed expectations in the midterm election, despite the very negative views on the economy.”