A little more than a year after painting a picture of “American carnage” and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” President Donald Trump has turned a rhetorical corner, taking a dramatic turn toward optimism.
“A new tide of optimism was already sweeping across our land,” Trump said in his first formal State of the Union address Tuesday night ― which, like most of his predecessors’ speeches, attracted a largely friendly audience. “Over the last year, we have made incredible progress and achieved extraordinary success.”
Economically speaking, the mood of the American public is largely keeping step. But there’s little public perception of a rising tide of goodwill about the nation’s political unity or its standing abroad — and even less enthusiasm for Trump himself, whose approval rating remains historically low.
On the economy, nearly 70 percent of Americans say they’re satisfied, a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal survey found, the highest level since the dot-com boom. Most expect the economy to stay the same or further improve. As in previous years, however, a majority also say that the stock market performance is “an indication that corporations and the wealthy are doing better, but not necessarily the economy overall,” that survey found.
And despite their positive economic views, “three in four Americans say the country is divided, six in 10 don’t have much confidence in the U.S. political system and six in 10 say racial tensions have increased,” CBS’ polling team wrote earlier this month.
Just 36 percent of Americans, according to one January poll, think the United States is “mostly winning at the things it tries to do.” That poll found half of the public optimistic about the next three years, down from 56 percent when Trump was inaugurated; Quinnipiac, which asks a similar question, has found that voters’ pessimism about Trump’s presidency has outstripped optimism since last May.
Trump also called for compromise. “Tonight, I call upon all of us to set aside our differences,” Trump said Tuesday, “to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people we were elected to serve.”
“As we rebuild America’s strength and confidence at home,” Trump said, “we are also restoring our strength and standing abroad.”
Americans aren’t so sure of that. Two-thirds think that leaders of other countries “don’t have much respect” for the president, and for the first time in years, a majority now believe the nation is viewed unfavorably in the eyes of the world. They’re right: Global approval of U.S. leadership stands at just 30 percent, down 18 percentage points in a year to its lowest point in the past decade.
One other polling number suggests rising hopefulness: The share of Americans who expect 2018 to be better than 2017 outstrips the share who thought that 2017 would be better than 2016. Unfortunately for Trump, that shift was driven mostly by Democrats ― many of whom say that what they’re looking forward to is the midterms congressional elections.