Do Americans Still Dare to Dream Together?

As 2016 draws near, most report being satisfied with their own lives, but not with the direction of the country.

Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Presidential elections turn first and foremost on candidates, but they also hinge on the mood of the electorate. Are voters happy when they head to the polls? Angry? Scared? Are they satisfied with the economy and with the direction of the country?

When Barack Obama easily defeated John McCain in 2008 to become the nation's first black president, he was not only the candidate who offered the chance for a historic first; he was also the younger, more dynamic, more charismatic of the two. Yet a parallel case could easily be made that Obama and McCain had relatively little to do with the outcome of the election.

The economy was tanking, and the Republican Party’s image was in tatters, having been dragged down by the increasingly unpopular presidency of George W. Bush. Just 12 percent of registered voters believed the country was headed in the right direction in October 2008, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found at the time, and an even more paltry 7 percent of voters told Gallup pollsters they were satisfied with the way things were going. Any scandal-free Democrat might have won that year, according to that line of thinking, be it Obama, Hillary Clinton, or heck, even Dennis Kucinich. (By the same logic, even Abraham Lincoln might have had trouble winning if he had an R next to his name.)

As the first primaries of the 2016 contest draw closer, Americans aren’t nearly as anxious as they were seven years ago, but they remain far from satisfied about the country’s course, according to a poll conducted by Penn Schoen Berland for The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute on the state of the American Dream. In fact, Americans report two distinct attitudes. From a personal perspective, 85 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their lives, and almost the same percentage said they were optimistic about the future. Fully two-thirds reported being satisfied financially—a pretty clear reflection on the improved economy over the last few years.

Their views about the nation more broadly, however, paint a different picture. Barely one-third—34 percent—of the nearly 2,000 people surveyed said the country was on the right track. (That’s actually slightly higher than the 28 percent who answered a similar question this month in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.) More than half of the people who said they were personally “living the American Dream” felt the nation as a whole was headed in the wrong direction.

It’s not unusual for people to feel better about their own lives than the country as a whole, said Jocelyn Kiley, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center. The right-track/wrong-track question is often a proxy for the state of the economy, and while perceptions of the recovery from the Great Recession have ticked up in the last few years, it hasn’t been a surge. “Still, most Americans say it’s in only fair or poor shape,” Kiley said.

So, who does that benefit? Typically, an electorate in a lousy mood about where the country is headed will vote for the party out of power, like in 2008, and before that, in 1992 and 1980. But the election is still more than a year away, and voter satisfaction has been edging up over the past year, even if it’s still low. Republicans, therefore, shouldn’t celebrate just yet. “It’s not destiny,” Kiley said about voter perceptions of the nation. “It creates more favorable conditions, or less favorable conditions. But still there [are] a lot of other factors.”

Health-care costs top the list of concerns cited by respondents in the survey, with 29 percent listing it as the biggest problem facing America today. That was followed by the national debt and high government spending. Twenty percent said that unemployment was the top problem, and the same percentage cited illegal immigration. Yet there was clear divergence based on age in the responses. Younger Americans were much more likely to cite unemployment as the most pressing concern, while older people picked health-care costs and government spending, along with political gridlock.

Reducing inequality—a major priority for Democrats in the 2016 race—was cited as the top concern by 16 percent of respondents overall, although Americans across all age groups generally favored Democratic ideas for how to address it, such as raising taxes on the wealthy and increasing the minimum wage. A somewhat smaller percentage favored GOP priorities of reducing the national debt, cutting taxes, and repealing Obamacare as ways to level the playing field. Independents also sided with Democrats on taxes and the minimum wage, giving them a potential opening in next year’s race.

While some Republicans have embraced a more populist message in response to growing concerns about the gap between the rich and poor, the party still often attacks Democrats for waging “class warfare.” And the poll’s findings suggest that the improving financial position of many Americans might limit the effectiveness of the Democrats’ message on inequality: Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that “as long as I am able to provide the life I want for myself and my family, it doesn't matter if others are substantially wealthier than me.” Just 36 percent said the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent was a problem regardless of their own success. Similarly, Republicans would likely take solace in the response of three-quarters of those surveyed, who said that as long as “opportunity was equal,” it was fine by them if some people didn’t achieve their goals.

For Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders, or just maybe even Joe Biden), the findings might serve as a warning sign. But to position themselves to retain the White House after Barack Obama packs his bags, their concern is more fundamental: They’d like Americans who feel more optimistic about their own lot in life to feel better about the direction of the country as a whole. They’d like the American Dream to still seem obtainable.