Politics Counts: Conflicted Views on the Economy

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The election is behind them and the holidays are here, but Americans are in a dour mood about the future, particularly where the economy is concerned. More than half of them, 53%, think the country is headed in the “wrong direction” and more than a quarter, 28%, say they expect the economy will be worse next year than it is now, according to the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll.

Those numbers won’t likely bring smiles to the White House, but what they actually mean and represent requires a little digging.

Four years of economic ups and (mostly) downs seem to have taken a toll on the traditionally sunny American perspective. And, as one might expect, there is subdued enthusiasm for a year ahead that essentially returns an unpopular status quo to Washington to govern.

But there are also deep partisan divides in evidence in this poll. And there is at least some evidence that those attitudes are having an exaggerated effect on how those people perceive the road ahead – even against evidence otherwise.

As President Obama’s first term comes to an end, its impact on the American economic psyche seems, at best, muted. Four years ago, when Mr. Obama was preparing to take office amid a financial crisis, 60% of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track. Now that number is down to … 53%. That’s pretty thin progress. And the 38% who say the economy will be better in a year than it is now is only slightly better than the 36% who said that in December 2008.

But while it seems logical to take the public’s temperature at the end of an election year, it can be also be a tricky task. Consider those figures about the state of the economy next year.

Throughout 2012, the number of people who said the economy would “get worse” next year was fairly stable, generally 20% or fewer. It was even improving before the election. In October only 9% of those surveyed said the economy would “get worse.” But in the post-election survey, the number spiked to 28%.

What brought that spike? Unhappy supporters of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. For the rest of this Politics Counts column, please visit the Wall Street Journal's website.