More than a decade ago, when Harris Interactive asked whether most people on Wall Street “would be willing to break the law if they believed they could make a lot of money and get away with it,” 64 percent said they would. In another question in the 1996 poll, only 40 percent agreed that “most successful people on Wall Street deserve to make the kind of money they earn.”
Those responses put the anger about AIG in perspective. Americans have long been ambivalent about Wall Street. Side by side those negative views, 69 percent in the 1996 poll said that Wall Street was absolutely essential because it “provides the money business must have for investments.” In another question, 70 percent said Wall Street benefits the country a lot or somewhat.
It’s not surprising that the responses about Wall Street took a tumble even before the latest news about AIG. Seventy-one percent in Harris’s February 2009 poll said most people on Wall Street were potential lawbreakers, and only 30 percent said they deserved the money they made. Views about the importance of Wall Street are still in positive territory, but they have declined, too. Sixty-two percent say that Wall Street is essential, and 54 percent that it benefits the country.
Survey questions in September and October showed skepticism about helping financial firms that was probably related to the ambivalence described above. In questions that asked people whether the right thing had been done, a skittish public said it had. But when asked straight out whether or not they favored or opposed spending $700 billion to provide assistance to banks and other large financial institutions, majorities in most questions were opposed. So, the seeds of anger we see today were planted last fall.
The free enterprise system works best when it encourages both accumulation and restraint. Restraint has been noticeably absent in recent years, and the polls about our financial institutions reflect that reality today. President Obama is right to try to get out in front of it.
The late Richard Scammon, the great psephologist, told me a story years ago about presidential mandates. It is probably apocryphal. A young reporter was meeting with the newly elected president John Kennedy. “What is the meaning of your election? What is your mandate,” he asked. The new president reportedly turned in his chair and pointed his finger, “Mandate, Schmandate, I’m sitting here and you’re sitting there.” An unlikely formulation from the elegant Mr. Kennedy, but I thought of it last week when Barack Obama told Republican leaders in firm language during a discussion of why he should get what he wanted in the stimulus bill, “I won.” That sentiment, and a considerable store of public opinion capital, didn’t produce a bipartisan House vote on the package, the president’s first big test.
Two pollsters, Gallup and Rasmussen are tracking the new president’s approval rating on a daily basis. This is a public opinion first. In Eisenhower’s first 100 days, only four approval questions were asked in that time frame. In George W. Bush’s, with more pollsters in the field, the major pollsters asked 37 approval questions, or one every 2.7 days.
What have we learned in week one? The new President had a 68 percent approval rating for this first three days on the job in Gallup’s sounding. That’s identical to Eisenhower’s initial rating and only a few percentage points below Kennedy’s (72 percent) and above Carter’s (66 percent). Obama’s initial approval rating was 10 percentage points higher than the initial rating of George W. Bush (57 percent), Bill Clinton (58 percent), or George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan (51 percent). By week’s end, Obama’s rating was 64 percent, with disapproval at 17. Rasmussen put the president’s job approval at week’s end at a virtually identical 63 percent, but the disapproval ratings is considerably higher (36 percent) than Gallup’s.
We greet our presidents with high expectations. With the exception of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, all recent presidents were more popular after their first hundred days. That’s a tall order for a very popular president.