The Optimism Gap
Why are blacks more upbeat than whites about the U.S. economy?


“One likely explanation,” Pew suggested, “is that in an age of highly polarized politics, Democrats and Republicans differ not only in their values, attitudes, and policy positions, but, increasingly, in their basic perceptions of reality.”

This phenomenon was apparent during the Bush years, when it was Republicans who were more bullish on the economy. In a 2004 Pew poll, only 12 percent of liberal Democrats characterized economic conditions as “excellent” or “good,” compared with 62 percent of conservative Republicans. In a 2006 poll, Republicans with household incomes below $50,000 were nearly three times as likely as Democrats in the same income group to say that economic conditions were “excellent” or “good” (48 percent to 17 percent). Similarly, 65 percent of Republicans with household incomes of $75,000 and above gave the economy an “excellent” or “good” rating, compared with only 31 percent of Democrats in that income group.

There’s no question that political affiliation now exerts a strong influence on how many Americans view the national economy. But partisanship alone cannot fully explain the current optimism of blacks. We must also consider the Obama Effect.

In a survey conducted last fall, Pew found that “blacks’ assessments about the state of black progress in America have improved more dramatically during the past two years than at any time in the past quarter century.” Between 2007 and 2009, the share of blacks saying that “the situation of black people in this country” had gotten better over the previous five years rose from 20 percent to 39 percent, and the proportion saying that life would be even better for blacks in the future increased from 44 percent to 53 percent. In addition, 56 percent of blacks said that the gap between black and white living standards had narrowed over the last decade, compared with 41 percent who said so in 2007. (This was especially striking because, according to a Pew analysis, the black-white median-household-income gap actually expanded by three percentage points between 2000 and 2008.)

“Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president appears to be the spur for this sharp rise in optimism among African Americans,” Pew concluded. The Obama Effect is also visible in Gallup’s Standard of Living Index, which measures (1) how Americans rate their standard of living and (2) whether they believe it is getting better or worse. Black scores in the index “continue to exceed those for whites,” Gallup reported in July, “a pattern that has persisted since early 2009.” Indeed, “blacks began to be more optimistic around the same time that Barack Obama was inaugurated as president.”

As November 2008 recedes further into history, and as Obama’s political troubles metastasize, it is easy to forget or underestimate the psychological impact that his election had on black Americans. The Obama Effect has helped fuel a remarkable spike in black confidence at a time of severe economic adversity. The official black-white unemployment gap is staggering — it was 7 percentage points (15.6 percent to 8.6 percent), in seasonally adjusted terms, as of July — but so is the black-white optimism gap. Whether (or how long) the latter gap will persist remains to be seen.

—  Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.