Americans are braced for an unhappy new year.
Two-thirds of respondents in a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll say the country has gotten off on the wrong track, and they express little confidence in either political party or any branch of government to effectively address the challenges they see ahead.
Their priority for President Joe Biden and the new Congress in 2023 is clear: inflation and the economy, chosen as the No. 1 or No. 2 issue by 54% of those surveyed. That’s double the number for any other issue.
“I’m hopeful, but I’m also doubtful,” said Janet Brown, a Republican who works as a mortgage broker in Petaluma, California. Peter Grant, a Democrat who owns a small marine business in Waldoboro, Maine, described himself as “weary.”
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“We’re in for some tumultuous times,” Grant, 62, predicted in a follow-up interview after participating in the poll. “Things are not good in this country right now in a lot of ways.”
The survey of 1,000 registered voters, taken by landline and cellphone Dec. 7-11, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
There were few signs of a burst of optimism as the new year nears.
By 65%-26%, Americans say the country has gotten off on the wrong track, not headed in the right direction. At the end of last year, those surveyed said by 57%-30% the country was on the wrong track – not exactly a measure of national exuberance but a less dire assessment of the future as a new year approached.
That said, today’s downbeat reading is an improvement from July, when by 76%-15% Americans said the nation wasn’t headed in the right direction.
Asked what one word described their mood about the new year, 39% chose “hopeful” and 5% chose “enthusiastic,” percentages that had dropped a bit from last year. Twenty-four percent chose “worried” and 11% “fearful,” both higher than last year.
Precisely the same 18% said their mood was “exhausted.”
Inflation has taken a toll, even as gas prices have been declining. “My power bill is about $600 a month; that used to be half of that.” Brown, 66, said. “Meat’s way up; chicken’s up; everything’s up, up, up. If you’re on fixed income, you know, I just don’t know what some people do.”
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From a list of 11 issues, 35% chose inflation/the economy as their top priority for the president and Congress next year. “Threats to democracy” ranked second, at 12%, and immigration third at 10%.
No other concern broke into double digits. Fewer than 1% cited the pandemic. Five percent, including 8% of Republicans, put investigating the Biden administration as their biggest issue.
That limited interest could create complications for Republicans who have vowed to launch a series of investigations – into Biden’s withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, his administration’s policies to control the Southern border, alleged conflicts in the business interests of the president’s son, Hunter, and more – when they take control of the House of Representatives in January.
A 51% majority of Americans agree with a statement that the congressional investigations will be “mostly a political effort to embarrass the Biden administration.” In contrast, 38% call them “an appropriate way to hold the Biden administration accountable.”
There is, predictably, a partisan divide on that question: 73% of Republicans call the investigations appropriate; 81% of Democrats say they are politically motivated. Independents are inclined to see them as efforts to embarrass the White House, by 54%-34%.
Expectations are low about Washington’s divided government getting much done next year.
“I think bipartisanship is useful and there’s not enough of that,” said Barbara Doppel, 62, a political independent who works as a bookkeeper in Berkley, Michigan.
“I’m all for … take a plank from the left, take a plank from the right, (and) come together and parcel a way to get things done,” said Tom Doty, 71, a retired insurance executive and a Democrat from Staten Island, New York. “But we’re being ruled by extremism on both sides, and the moderate middle is being squeezed out.”
Both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party are now seen as “too extreme” by a majority of Americans. Sixty-one percent say the GOP is too extreme, including 28% of those who identify themselves as Republicans. Fifty-two percent say Democrats are too extreme, including 17% of self-identified Democrats.
Americans also have a net unfavorable view of all three branches of government: The Supreme Court by 44% unfavorable-42% favorable, Congress by 54%-28%, the president by 50%-46%.
Those findings and the public’s dyspeptic mood are a challenge not only for Biden but also for just about every officeholder in Washington.
“When the three branches of government are viewed negatively, it signals that voters are looking for something new or better, be it structurally or politically,” said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center. “The voting public is ripe for a booster shot of positivity, because the immune system of the body politic has weakened significantly.”
Rachel Naegeli, 53, a nurse practitioner and a Democrat from Manvel, Texas, thinks there could be a turnaround in 2023.
“I’m hopeful that the last couple of years and giant amount of negative things that have happened have been a wake-up call, and that it is possible to learn from those things and move forward,” she said, mentioning issues include racism, gun violence and reproductive rights. “Perhaps the rose-colored glasses have been pulled off.”
“I’m feeling better than the last two years,” she said. “But that’s a low bar.”