The State of the Union, 2015: Not Great, but Getting Better

The state of the nation? Not great - but it's sure been worse.

That summarizes public attitudes as Barack Obama prepares to deliver his penultimate State of the Union address. There are grace notes, largely based on improving views of the economy. But deep concerns about long-term and structural economic challenges remain, alongside sharp divisions across a range of policy issues and approaches.

All told, 42 percent of Americans in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll rate the state of the nation positively, as excellent or good; a majority, 57 percent, rates it negatively, not so good or poor. The president may well hope for a brighter legacy.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

But long-running public discontent at last is being leavened by a growing sense that the economy is getting better. In one example, as many Americans now say their financial situation has improved since Obama took office as say they've lost ground - 25 percent each, with the other half reporting no change. That's a first for his presidency; "worse off" beat "better off" by anywhere from 8 to 22 percentage points in eight previous ABC/Post polls since 2009.

Moreover, a plurality in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, gives Obama credit for the improving economy: Forty-two percent say his policies have helped the economy, easily surpassing the 27 percent who say he's slowed economic improvement. But that leaves three in 10 who say he's made no difference - no harm, but also no good.

Further, among Americans who say the nation is in good shape overall, the economy leads as the chief reason, cited by 41 percent. Among those who say the nation's in bad shape, by contrast, many fewer - 21 percent - blame the economy. The rest scatter among other concerns, including political, social, national security and international issues, or some combination of them.

As noted in a separate analysis yesterday, 41 percent say the economy is in excellent or good shape, up sharply from 27 percent just before the midterm elections. That's fueled a 9-point one-month advance in Obama's job approval rating and a 12-point drop in the number of Americans saying the country's headed seriously off on the wrong track. (That analysis also covers the public's divisions on a variety of policy preferences.)

Yet substantial economic concerns remain. Consider:

  • Sixty-two percent are worried about being able to maintain their current standard of living - down from its peak, 68 percent, in mid-2008, but still a sizable majority of the population. It was 51 percent, for comparison, in late 2007, at the beginning of the downturn.
  • To the extent the economy has improved, half the public says it's mostly helped wealthy Americans. Substantially fewer, 38 percent, the say recovery has helped all income groups.
  • A vast 83 percent say the income gap between wealthy Americans and others is a problem for the country; 51 percent call it a major problem. A possible theme in the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic Party leads the GOP in being seen as having better ideas on how to address the issue, by 44 to 33 percent - but neither has majority backing.

GROUPS - Views on the economy and on the state of the nation more broadly are closely linked. Among people who rate the economy positively, 77 percent say the country is in good shape overall; so do 66 percent of those who say they've become better off with Obama in office. Positive views of the nation dive to 17 percent among those who say the economy is still hurting, and 14 percent of those who say they're worse off now than when the president took office.

There's also a strong political aspect to views of the country overall. Even as a lame duck, the occupant of the White House influences these attitudes: Ratings of the state of the nation are brightest among Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups such as young adults and nonwhites, and far less so among some others, including older adults, whites and (especially) evangelical white Protestants, a core Republican group. Strikingly, while 65 percent of liberal Democrats say the country's in good shape, a mere 20 percent of conservative Republicans agree, despite the GOP's gains in the 2014 midterms.

There also are differences among groups in economic experiences and attitudes. Young adults by 40-9 percent say they've gotten better off rather than worse off under Obama; this shifts with age until, among seniors, "worse off" sentiment prevails by a 14-point margin. Wealthier people say they're better off by an 11-point margin, while those with incomes less than $100,000 split about evenly.

Notably, views of the wealth gap as a problem reach across political and income groups alike. However, Democrats and liberals are much more apt to call it a "major" problem, Republicans, and conservatives, much less so.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 12-15, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 30-24-37 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.