How Do Americans Feel about the Bailouts?

Public support for the financial rescue package has declined sharply. Americans are not enthusiastic about bailing out the auto companies either.

Senior Fellow
Karlyn Bowman

When John McCain said amid market turmoil that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong," he sealed his electoral fate.

That was September 15 in Jacksonville, Flordia. In Gallup's daily tracking of the race, Barack Obama overtook McCain on September 16 and remained ahead in every survey, save one, until Election Day. Even McCain's decision September 24 to suspend his campaign to return to Washington to deal with the financial crisis didn't help him in the polls.

In a Pew Research Center poll conducted between September 27 and September 29, 46 percent of respondents said Obama could better handle the economic crisis, while only a third said McCain could. Two weeks later, the public sentiment remained the same.

It seems that, while many Americans agree that Obama was the candidate better suited to handle the economy, they doubt whether the government really should take on that kind responsibility.

What's been missing, though, is a closer examination of the public's reaction to the crisis and the officials who are attempting to quell it. Opinion research shows that Americans are, on the whole, leaning against the government's rescue package and that many are skeptical about propping up the auto industry.

Americans are also assigning blame to individuals, not institutions. In early October, when Pew asked Americans about things that contributed to the problems facing our financial markets, nearly 80 percent said "people taking on more debt than they can afford" contributed a lot. Seventy-two percent chose the response "banks making risky loans." Far fewer, 46 percent, said "weak government regulation of financial institutions" was a major contributor.

Answering a broader question about regulation, 50 percent of respondents said it was necessary to protect the public interest, while 38 percent said that usually does more harm than good. These responses were virtually identical to ones given when the poll was administered in 2004. Still, in an early November Gallup/USA Today survey, 60 percent of those surveyed said it was critical or very important for President-elect Obama to impose stricter regulations on financial institutions.

The exact wording of poll questions--which is always important--is crucial to further parse the public's response to the financial crisis.

In one version of an early October Ipsos/McClatchy poll, 52 percent of respondents said it was better for the government to "step in and rescue the financial markets," while 41 percent said it was better for the government not to take this action. But when the pollsters changed the wording to ask whether it was better for the government "to bail out the financial markets," opinion flipped--with 42 percent in favor of government action and 51 percent opposed.

On three occasions in October, when CBS News and The New York Times asked people about the "economic bailout that was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president," only around three in 10 approved.

Meanwhile, Pew has used a different phrase, asking Americans four times about how the government is "investing billions to try to keep financial institutions and markets secure." In mid-September, 57 percent said this was the right thing to do. In the latest mid-November poll, only 40 percent did, while 43 percent said it was the wrong thing. In each question, Democrats were more likely than Republicans and independents to say it was the right course of action.

On Election Day, 39 percent of voters checked a box on the exit poll indicating they supported "the $700 billion government plan to assist failing financial companies"--note the more urgent wording--while 56 percent were opposed.

As for the ailing auto companies, Americans say they care but stand divided on the proper course of action. In a mid-November Pew poll, three in 10 respondents said they were paying very close attention to the industry's problems. That figure was up from the 16 percent, measured just two weeks earlier. According to a November Gallup poll, Americans were divided--47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed--about "the federal government giving major financial assistance to the Big Three automakers."

When those who opposed the plan were asked if they would favor it if one or more of the three major auto companies was certain to fail unless government assistance was forthcoming, opinion barely shifted. No matter how dire the circumstances, it seems, Americans won't budge. In general, Democrats tended to support the proposal, while Republicans and independents typically opposed it.

But in a more recent ABC News question, people were asked about the $25 billion loan and told--in the actual text of the question--that "some people say it's a bailout those companies don't deserve, and that they'd be better off reorganizing under bankruptcy laws. Other people say it's necessary to protect auto workers and save a key part of the U.S. economy." Given that particular description, a smaller number--35 percent--supported the bailout proposal, while 57 percent opposed it.

Confirming Americans' lukewarm feelings toward an auto industry bailout, the early November Gallup/USA Today poll reported just 20 percent of respondents said it was critical or very important for Obama to provide loans and other help to auto companies.

Given these numbers, it seems that, while many Americans did agree that Obama was the candidate better suited to handle the economy, they doubt whether the government really should take on that kind responsibility. Do you agree?

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow at AEI.

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