Americans are deeply divided and anxious over the trajectory of opportunity for the next generation, with whites again much more pessimistic than minorities. For many, the operative definition of the American Dream is that each generation will live better than its predecessor. Yet, in reaffirming earlier Heartland polls, the May 2011 survey found sharp divisions along racial lines over that prospect: While nearly three-fifths of Hispanics and African-Americans and nearly two-fifths of Asians believed their children will have more opportunity than they do, only 24 percent of whites agreed. And while only one-sixth of African-Americans, one-fifth of Hispanics, and one-fourth of Asians believed their children will have less opportunity, more than two-fifths of whites expected that fate. Whites with at least a college degree were even more pessimistic than whites without one. Equally striking, minorities were more likely than whites in the July 2009 survey to say that children from all income groups have an adequate opportunity to succeed. Meanwhile, just 36 percent of millennials in the April 2010 survey said they expected their standard of living to exceed their parents’.
Fears are widespread that the nation may lose its economic preeminence to China, although this concern is qualified by residual optimism that the U.S. can compete. In a November-December 2010 poll, only one in five said that the United States had the world’s strongest economy; nearly half picked China instead. Even looking forward 20 years, just 34 percent said that the U.S. would have the world’s top economy, compared with 37 percent who picked China. Americans believe the nation still possesses significant assets: Solid majorities say that the quality of our universities, corporate leadership, and workforce still exceeds those of other nations. But only about two-fifths say the same about our elementary and secondary education systems. Those mixed reviews help explain an ambivalent prognosis. While more than two-thirds say the United States can remain the world’s manufacturing leader, nearly three-fifths agree that increasing competition from lower-paid workers around the world would prevent American living standards from rising as fast as they once did. As we wrote at the time, “Among the victims of the Great Recession, it seems, is any lingering assumption that America’s historic economic advantages will guarantee prosperity in the future.”
President Obama faces a sharply divided verdict on his performance and direction. Assessments of Obama’s job performance have oscillated within a narrow range over the past two years. In eight Heartland Monitor polls since January 2010, Obama’s approval rating crossed the telltale 50 percent threshold only once—in a May 2011 survey when he reached 51 percent. Otherwise, it has varied between 49 percent and 44 percent, his mark in the two most recent polls. Obama’s disapproval rating has fluctuated between 41 percent and 50 percent. Obama’s approval rating has been slightly net positive in five of the eight surveys, but negative in the past two. (The most recent survey was conducted in early December, before the payroll-tax fight with House Republicans that, according to several other polls, at least temporarily boosted Obama’s approval rating back closer to 50 percent.)
Obama has consistently scored better on a question that asks Americans about the overall impact of his policies. In the eight surveys since January 2010, 35 percent to 40 percent of adults have consistently said that the country is worse off because of the policies Obama has implemented. But in each survey, Obama has retained a thin majority of hope between the share who say that his policies have already improved conditions in America (11 percent in the December 2011 poll) and those who say that his agenda has pointed the country in the right direction even if it hasn’t produced benefits yet (43 percent). Obama’s stronger, if still tenuous, showing on the forward-looking question underscores how critical it will be for him to persuade voters to view the election not only as a retrospective referendum on his first four years but as a prospective choice between the competing directions that he and his Republican opponent are offering.
Few Americans believe they are better off than when Obama was elected, but the country is closely divided on whether another president could have done better or would do better going forward. Ronald Reagan provided a lasting frame for presidential elections when he encouraged voters in 1980 to ask, “Are you are better off than you were four years ago?” In a previously unreleased finding from the December Heartland Monitor, just 23 percent of adults said they were better off than when Obama took office, although the share that said they were worse off (36 percent) was smaller than the group (40 percent) that said their condition hasn’t changed since 2008. By more than 3-to-1, those surveyed agreed that the current state of the economy has more to do with “factors beyond President Obama’s control” than with the policies he has pursued. But adults split evenly, 41 percent to 41 percent, when asked whether the country is “better off because Barack Obama won” in 2008 or would have been “better off if another candidate won.” Looking forward, the country divided as evenly: 29 percent said they expected their financial situation would improve most over the next few years if Obama won, and an identical 29 percent said they expected bigger gains if a Republican won. In a telling measure of skepticism about both parties, 35 percent of adults (and 42 percent of independents) said that “neither” would improve their financial situation.