Over the last six months, Americans have been asked to support a $700 billion financial rescue package, federal loans for auto companies and a $900 billion-plus stimulus plan. They have reacted differently to each proposal. Here's why.
In January, roughly six in 10 respondents said the government and Congress should not dole out the second half of the Troubled Assets Relief Program.
Polls conducted in September and October already revealed considerable doubts about government help for ailing financial institutions, and those surveyed told pollsters the situation was serious and that they would be hurt by it.
But by December, Americans were much more critical. In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll that month, for example, only 27% approved of the "plan"--the word bailout was not used--to "stabilize financial markets, make investments in financial institutions, and make credit available to business and consumers," while 50% disapproved.
In answer to ABC News/Washington Post and CNN/Opinion Research Corporation questions in January, roughly six in 10 respondents said the government and Congress should not dole out the second half of the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) funds. (They were eventually released, per Obama's request.)
The polls suggest several reasons for the public's doubts. For starters, most people say the program hasn't worked: A whopping 86% of respondents to the January CNN/ORC poll said TARP hadn't done what it was supposed to do to help the economy.
Second, most Americans feel distant from Wall Street--only around 5-7% say they trade regularly--and are ambivalent about its players. So helping them isn't high on most Americans' priority list.
Additionally, many believe those who are responsible are being let off the hook. (Seventy-two percent thought so, according to a recent Pew poll.) The long-term decline in confidence in the federal government capabilities probably also contributes to reservations about TARP.
As for the auto bailout, polls produced different results depending on question wording, but it is fair to say that there was considerable opposition. Gallup's early December question found 43% of respondents were in favor of "giving major financial assistance to the big three U.S. automotive companies if they are close to going broke or declaring bankruptcy," and 51% opposed.
For an ABC News/Washington Post question that gave people a dollar figure--"$14 billion in loans"--and told people that "some people say it's a bailout the companies don't deserve and that they'd be better off reorganizing under bankruptcy laws" and "other people say it is necessary to protect auto workers and save a key part of the economy," 42% were supportive, but 55% were not.
The explanation for resistance is that people believe the automakers' problems are of their own making. In a January CBS News/New York Times poll, 29% said U.S. automakers make better cars, while 55% said foreign automakers do.
In 1979, however, American automakers were on top, 46 to 26%. Seventy-five percent of those asked told ABC/Post interviewers that the automakers' problems were mainly the fault of bad management; only 22% blamed the bad economy.
For the third straight week, 95% of respondents to the ABC News Consumer Confidence poll said the economy is in bad shape. Support for the stimulus, surveys show, is a cry for help. Sixty-five percent of respondents to a December ABC/Post poll, and 70% to a January iteration, supported new federal spending of about $800 billion on "tax cuts, construction projects, energy, education and health care."
In early February, CBS found that 51% approved of the federal government passing an $800 billion stimulus bill "in order to try to help the economy." Thirty-nine percent disapproved.
These polls on the stimulus offer up warning flags for Washington. While 57% of respondents to a CNN/ORC poll said money would be spent on useful projects under the plan, a significant number--42%--said it would go toward projects for purely political reasons.
Probably reflecting news coverage of controversial expenditures in the bill and reservations about its effectiveness, almost as many wanted to pass the bill with major changes (37%) as wanted it passed outright (38%), according to answers to Gallup's new question.
Forty-five percent of respondents to the new CBS News poll said the stimulus plan would not shorten the recession, and 18% thought it would shorten it but not significantly. Only 21% said it would shorten the recession significantly. It seems Americans are nervous but keeping their fingers crossed.
Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.