Do you think things in this country (are generally going in the right direction) or do you feel things (have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track)?
Here is a graph of the responses, data from WaPo, graph by your humble trombonist. Yes, it's busy, but please bear with me.
In bright, sunny yellow, we see the percentage of respondents answering "right direction." The thin horizontal yellow line shows the average across the period, 35.77%. In somber, depressing brown, we have the percentage answering "wrong track." Period average of 60.16% is a barely visible thin brown line.
There are lots of ups and down over the years. What are we to make of this? The Bar placed on the 80% line gives us some clues. The red segments span Republican Presidential administrations; the blue segments, Democratic Presidential administrations.
Let's examine this in detail. Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, within weeks of the extreme points at the left side of the graph. Carter's election brought new, short-lived hope. Sentiment deteriorated badly during his term, and we gave him the boot, in favor of Mr. Ronnie "Morning-In-America" Reagan. During his first term, "right" and "wrong" evaluations were much better than their average values, so we gave him a second term. Sentiment slumped a bit in the 2nd term, but favorables stayed above average, and unfavorables below average, so we promote George H.W.Bush to the presidency. Alas for him, that was when some of Reagan's vultures came home to roost, and by mid 1992 (an election year) the numbers were even a bit worse than Nixon levels.
Rightly or wrongly, an unhappy electorate blames the President. That's just a political fact. In large measure, this is determined by the state of the economy, which is a poor proxy for presidential performance. So we bounced Bush the First, and bought in the Clinton Golden Era. Sentiment peaked briefly at first, then sagged during the first Clinton term. Even in mid 1996, the numbers were far below average. But they snuck up above average by election day, so we gave him a 2nd chance; and his assesment launched like a rocket from 1996 on.
Clintons's second term "right" and "wrong" values are far more favorable than their averages, hitting extremes in January, 1998. Even after the 1998 impeachment, sentiment remained near exteme levels. Still, in a close election, we sent the incumbent part into minority status.
This is pretty difficult to understand, since the economy still looked pretty strong. There were lots of factors, very prominent among them the facts that 1) Repugnicant Swift-Boat liars committed character assassination on Al Gore, and 2) The election was stolen in Florida, and G.W. Bush was appointed President in the 3rd worst Supreme Court decision of all time.
The record of the Bush 2 administration needs no detailed analysis. First term values deteriorated a bit, but stayed better than average, even in the wake of 9/11 and the recession of '01-'02, In the 2nd term, the citizens woke up to what Bush was about. Maybe his attack on social security was the alarm clock. In summary, Bush, et. al. did everything wrong, lied about it, and lied about their lies. Hence the Democratic sweeps of '06 and '08.
But we are an impatient and hard to please people. Obama inherited an impossible task, and the Right Wing noise machine is loud and potent. They are dedicated to his failure. "Right" and "wrong" values currently hover near their average values. Who knows where we go from here?