Americans' economic outlook: Optimism, but Trump tweets and trade raise concerns — CBS News poll

By Anthony Salvanto and Jennifer De Pinto

/ CBS News

Slightly more Americans say they're optimistic about the economy rather than pessimistic going forward, though many are unsure. Looking at their own pocketbooks, Americans are more optimistic about their own financial situation than pessimistic.

As is the case with many views these days — even those that might seem otherwise objective — partisanship weighs on this. Republicans are especially upbeat, Democrats much less so, and this is a difference that cuts across financial status and income levels.

In this study, we asked Americans what reasons they had to be optimistic or pessimistic about the economy because, while there's no single formula that Americans can look at to gauge the economy, their outlook on it can nonetheless help determine how the economy actually performs. The job market stands as the top reason Americans give to be optimistic, and optimism about it outweighs pessimism by a wide margin. That may also help explain why Americans are particularly upbeat about their own finances.

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Looking ahead to the stock market — which has had wide swings in recent days — optimism just slightly outweighs pessimism, though it may not matter as much. Many Americans do not feel their financial situation is closely tied to the market, for better or worse. Most report it does not much or has little impact, while 13% say the market impacts their finances "a lot." Just under half report having money invested.

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U.S. trade policy, also atop the news, is seen on balance as reason for pessimism more than optimism, as are international and world events more generally.

The president, the economy and personal finance assessments

Fifty-three percent of Americans give President Trump good marks for handling the economy. But they're less positive about what happens when he tweets about stocks, economic matters and trade policy. Only 25% say that his tweeting raises confidence, and more (38%) say this lowers confidence. The rest say it doesn't have an impact. It is Republicans who feel, on balance, that his tweeting increases confidence in the economy, but even then, fewer than half of them hold this opinion. Most Democrats think his tweets decrease confidence, and independents tend to agree.

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Many presidents have tried to boost Americans' confidence in the economy over the years, and today, when Mr. Trump talks about the economy, most Americans (54%) think he makes it sound better than it really is, though most Republicans feel he is describing it accurately. (And they think it is in good shape.)

Three-fourths of Democrats and a slight majority of independents say the president makes things sound better than they really are.

And the media is also under some scrutiny for its coverage of the economy. Forty-two percent of Americans think the media make the economy sound worse than it really is, which is more than the 34% who think the media describe the economy accurately. Republicans have particularly great distrust for the media's portrayal of the economy.

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The president and trade

Mr. Trump gets more positive ratings on his handling of the economy overall than he does on his trade policy with China. The public expresses some doubts about whether the president's trade approach with China will succeed.

Overall, most Americans rate the job the president is doing on the economy as very or somewhat good, but more than half give him negative marks on his handling of trade with China.

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Across the political spectrum — Democrats, Republicans, and independents give the president less positive marks on trade than on the economy.

Americans express some skepticism about whether the president's approach to trade policy with China will be successful. Only a quarter say they truly believe it will be, while another third hope it is but aren't certain it will be, and 44% don't think Mr. Trump's approach will succeed.

Republicans are more optimistic than Democrats, but just 50% of Republicans say they do believe Mr. Trump's trade policies with China will be successful.

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On balance, more Americans think the agriculture business in the U.S. is being hurt rather than helped as a result of trade policies with China.

Those living in households with someone who has a job that depends on agriculture or farming have a relatively more positive view, although they are divided in their assessments: 41% think U.S. trade policies with China have helped, but 38% say they have hurt.

Compared to the public overall, Americans who depend on the agriculture industry give Mr. Trump a more positive job rating overall and think he's doing a good job on trade policy with China. They are also disproportionately Republican to begin with.

It's not just farmers who many Americans think are being hurt. Most think it's the American consumer who ultimately pays the cost of the tariffs the U.S. imposes on goods imported from China. A majority of Democrats and independents and nearly half of Republicans hold this view.

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And the public's outlook isn't especially optimistic about trade policy as it relates to the national economy. Looking ahead, more Americans say U.S. trade policy is a reason for pessimism (42%) than a reason for optimism (34%) about the economy over the next year. They are more optimistic about the job market.

Americans assessing their finances

Three in 10 Americans report being better off financially than they were two years ago. They tend to be wealthier. People with six-figure family incomes are more likely to say this than those earning under $100,000, and much more likely than those with incomes under $50,000.

Of Americans earning under $50,000, four in 10 say they're doing about the same. Americans who say they are better off are more likely to be stockholders than not. This differentiates them from those who are the same or worse off.

And among those who say they are better off, more earn over $100,000 per year, which is more than twice the rate of those who say they are worse off today.

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But there also may be a strong role for partisanship here. Democrats and Republicans report earning higher incomes at comparable rates. But Republicans overall are almost three times more likely to say they are better off financially (45%) than are Democrats (16%).

There are partisan gaps in every income bracket, including higher ones. Republicans who earn over $100,000 are twice as likely to say they are better off than Democrats who earn that much are. And Republicans who earn under $50,000 per year are more than twice as likely as Democrats to say they are better off financially.

Cost of living could also play a role. Those Democrats earning under $50,000 tend to live in cities, whereas Republicans earning at that level are more likely than Democrats to live in suburbs or rural areas; Democrats are twice as likely to report living in cities.

Still, when Americans are asked to describe their own level of financial comfort, we see large partisan gaps at each level. Among those who say they live comfortably; among those who say they just have enough to meet expenses; and among those who don't — in each of these groups, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they are nonetheless better off today than before.

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Americans are split almost evenly between those who express mostly concern and those who express at least some confidence in their ability to pay bills. Most (57%) are confident about paying for their food and housing, though 43% are concerned month to month.

Similarly, half express confidence in their ability to pay debts, and half don't. More than half (54%) express at least some concern about medical bills or health care.

These feelings are, as one might expect, closely related to income. But they are also related to circumstances: those taking care of an elderly parent or an ill family member tend to be more concerned about their monthly bills than those who are not doing so.

More than one-third (36%) have passed up getting medical attention or filling a prescription in the last year because of the costs. That figure rises to four in 10 among those in the lower income bracket.

Americans' finances and the 2020 vote

Political observers have long discussed the connection — or sometimes, the lack thereof — between how people are doing financially and how they'll vote. It appears there is a partisan component to both evaluations.

Most Republicans say they're better off personally today than two years ago, but most of those who are not better off say they are still definitely or probably voting for Mr. Trump. Republicans who say that today they are concerned about paying their monthly food and housing bills are also mostly voting for Mr. Trump.

By contrast, Democrats who say they are better off than two years ago overwhelmingly say they would not vote for Mr. Trump.

While views on the economy are generally related to how people vote, views on the state of the country are even more closely related. Today, two-thirds of people who think the economy is good say they'd definitely or probably vote for Mr. Trump next year, and people who are overwhelmingly optimistic about the economy (7 in 10) say they are definitely voting for Mr. Trump. Pessimistic people are overwhelmingly not.

But nine in 10 of those who think things are going very well in the country more generally will definitely vote for him; nine in 10 who think things are very bad, won't.

Almost one-third of people who think the economy is good nonetheless also think things are going badly in the country. Two-thirds of them say they definitely won't vote for him. Many of these individuals are Democrats who would likely not have voted for the president anyway, but the same pattern holds for the independents among them. This has echoes of the 2018 midterms when similar groups of "economy is good but state of the country is bad" voters did not back the president's party.

The CBS News survey is conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 2,727 U.S. residents interviewed between August 20 and 22, 2019. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2016 presidential vote and registration status. The margin of error is 2%.

Poll toplines

First published on August 25, 2019 / 10:30 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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