By a margin of almost two-to-one the American public thinks the government is doing the right thing in investing billions of dollars to try to keep financial institutions and markets secure. Reacting to initial reports of the federal bailout plan over the weekend, 57% said the government was doing the right thing, while 30% said it was doing the wrong thing. At the same time, only 19% of the public believes that the government is currently doing an excellent or good job in handling the financial problems on Wall Street. Support for the administration’s plan to bailout many of the nation’s troubled financial institutions is largely bipartisan.
These are the principal findings of a Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey conducted September 19-22, 2008 among 1,003 adults, which found that voters favor Barack Obama over John McCain as the presidential candidate best able to address the current financial crisis: 47% favor Obama, while 35% choose McCain. Independents prefer Obama over McCain by a margin of 44% to 30%, while Republicans and Democrats line up solidly behind their party nominees.
The survey finds the highest level of citizen interest in reports about the economy in nearly 20 years of Center news interest polling. A solid majority of Americans (56%) say they followed news about the economy very closely last week. In addition, 49% say they followed news about the turmoil on Wall Street very closely.
Furthermore, large numbers of Americans were aware of specific aspects of the Wall Street story. Nearly two-thirds (64%) reported hearing a lot about the Federal Reserve’s loan to insurance giant AIG; 59% heard a lot about Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy; and roughly half (49%) heard a lot about the sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America. By Monday night 58% had heard a lot about the government bailout plan.
Despite the intense public focus on economic and financial news, relatively few Americans (24%) say they understand the recent problems on Wall Street very well. A relatively large proportion (48%) say they understand the current financial crisis fairly well, while 28% say they have very little or no understanding of the situation. Among those who say they have a good understanding of the crisis, 54% express a positive view of the government’s plan to invest billions to shore up financial institutions; that differs little from those who say they understand the situation fairly well (58%), or those who say they understand little or nothing about the plan (54%).
The government is widely criticized for its handling of the financial problems on Wall Street. Only 2% say the government is doing an excellent job and 17% say it’s doing a good job. The vast majority of Americans say the government is doing only a fair (44%) or poor (33%) job handling the problems on Wall Street. These negative assessments of the government’s performance are shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. Democrats and independents are particularly critical of the government in this regard: 38% of each say the government is doing a poor job.