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Surveys say! Polls' results leave experts to explain confusing gap

Happy New Year!

As well it should be.

In this most measured of societies, where pollsters seem to chart every shift, every nuance, every tiny reaction to the nation's events, the numbers at the beginning of 1999 look good.

The economy is strong, and most people seem to know it. Consumer confidence ticked up a bit at the end of the year. Unemployment is low: 4.4 percent nationally.

After scorching the sparkle off investor confidence over the past few months, the stock market has bounced upward.

On the social scales, Americans are killing each other much less than they did a few years ago. Kids are using marijuana and tobacco a little less and are cutting back a bit on other kinds of substance abuse, too.

And even with an impeachment vote now glued to the 20th century historical record, most of the nation thinks President Clinton is doing a good job.

The "optimism gap" that social scientists have been watching for years is still there.

That means that on an individual basis, people believe they are doing just fine. But they tend to feel everyone else is going straight to Hades in a handcar.

Here, then, is how America feels about itself, gleaned from 13 opinion polls taken between September and December.


By a huge margin _ 71 percent _ the people approved of the job Clinton was doing, although they don't see him as a role model. His favorable rating dropped to 29 percent as the details of his relationship with a White House intern became public.

For those who are troubled by that, there is this simple explanation: "It really is the economy, stupid!" Six of 10 people told pollsters in 1998 that they thought people would tolerate most any presidential misbehavior as long as the economy was strong.

Congress was in a big slump at year's end, with an approval rating in the 40s, down from a high of 60 percent in the autumn.

People got to know independent counsel Kenneth Starr toward year's end, but they didn't seem to like him. Starr ended the year with a 34 percent approval rating. That was better than when the year began. His approval rating had dropped to a low of 9 percent earlier in the year.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton began 1998 with a 45 percent favorable rating and finished the year with a 66 percent rating, obviously collecting sympathy as her husband's untoward behavior filled the papers and the evening news.


NBC News and the Wall Street Journal conducted what might be viewed as the mother of all economic polls at the beginning of December, covering everything from the standard "How satisfied are you with the economy?" questions to queries about specific policies and who should get credit for what goes badly or well.

That survey showed that 45 percent were "very satisfied" with job security, a big increase over the 38 percent who said they were very satisfied in 1996.

In one of the most important changes, 63 percent said they expected their children's generation would enjoy a higher standard of living than their generation. That number was only 43 percent in 1996 and was viewed at the time as a significant erosion of the American dream.

Of course, there were concerns. Forty-seven percent of the respondents said going to professional sports events was just too expensive. And 70 percent were worried that the cost of college education was moving beyond the means of average families.

Social problems

The nation has always had a shifting perception of its biggest problems.

In hard times, jobs and the economy top the list.

During the darker years of the Cold War, it was concern about world peace.

The reactions shift during the course of a year, too, based on events. Last February, because of growing tensions with Iraq, Saddam Hussein was viewed as America's biggest problem by 14 percent of the respondents in a CBS/New York Times poll, followed by moral values, drugs, crime, poverty, education and war.

But as 1998 ended, when people were asked by the Tarrance Group to list the number one problem facing the U.S., crime was the answer from 13 percent, with drugs in second place at 10 percent, education in third at 6 percent, the economy fourth with 5 percent, and moral and religious concerns fifth with 4 percent.

That response was most curious in light of another set of statistics released at the end of the year. Fewer Americans said they were crime victims in 1997 than at any time in the last 25 years, according to the Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey.

The long view

Toward year's end, Shell Oil hired pollster Peter Hart to measure how people were feeling about likely developments in the 21st century. "What would be the worst part of living in the 21st century?"

By a huge margin, people said the worst part of the new century will be that scientists will be able to clone humans. Fifty-eight percent put that at the top of the list. Next in line was that people will live to be 100, the "worst" development for 12 percent.

Nine percent said the worst thing will be that women will be able to conceive children in their 50s and 60s. Eight percent feared genetic engineering.

And for 7 percent, "extraterrestrial life will be discovered" was about the worst thing that could happen.