Attitude Check: Consumers spending more for Christmas

The latest data from Gallup show that people are feeling better about the economy this holiday season, but worse about the U.S. government.

Kai Ryssdal: So, how're you feelin' about things? Attitude Check is what we call our partnership with Gallup, a chance to figure out what Americans are really thinking.

Today, it's confidence -- economic confidence. Frank Newport is Gallup's editor in chief. Frank, good to talk to you again.

Frank Newport: Good to be with you.

Ryssdal: Let me ask you the holiday question first, and consumers, since that's top of mind for a lot of people these days: Do we know, or what do we know, about how consumers are feeling right now?

Newport: Well, our measures all look to a more positive situation right now as we head toward Christmas, we've got several different things we look at. Economic confidence we track daily, that's consumer confidence, and that's more positive now, it's edging up. We actually ask Americans how much you're going to spend for Christmas -- we've been doing that for a number of years. And that measure -- by the way, that number is $756, if you want to know the exact amount, that's what people are going to spend on average.

Ryssdal: Wow, really? I don't think I'm spending that much. But anyway.

Newport: Well, you're below --

Ryssdal: I'm below average, that is right. I'll say it so you don't have to, but anyway.

Newport: All right. But that's actually comparatively slightly up from where it was last year, with $686, and actually we have to go back to '07 to find a estimate of spending that is this high. So that indicator shows us that we're looking at a little more retail activity than we did last year.

Ryssdal: Let me spin off some questions that we asked small businesses yesterday about uncertainty and how they're feeling given everything that's going on in Washington and Congress. What do you know about how people are feeling about what's happening in Congress? Or more accurately, what's not happening in Congress?

Newport: We know in general that this year, 2011, will be recognized, Kai, as the year that Americans basically lost all faith on anything that goes on in Washington. I could go on and on with the list of record-low evaluations of Congress -- and most recent this week, 11 percent approval rating for Congress. Lowest in Gallup history, going back to 1974. So what they're doing this week here is basically the kind of thing that's led to these low ratings, and that is failure to compromise -- Americans want compromise -- and we think it could have a real impact not only on views of Congress, but views of the economy as well, because we saw that earlier this year.

Ryssdal: Spin that out a little bit: I mean, for a long time, voters have been more worried about the economy than anything else. Do I hear you saying that's not true?

Newport: No, that's still true. Sixty-four percent of Americans say the most important problem facing the country is something relating to the economy. That's actually down a little from November, so that's a little more positive news about the economy. But what's replaced it? Well we're now up to as high as we've seen, at least by a couple of points, of Americans saying the biggest problem facing the country is the government.

Ryssdal: Huh.

Newport: So the government is there as a real issue, and again -- we saw it this summer -- the economic confidence dropped almost 20 points between June and August last summer, and one of the factors we think was the debt ceiling debate.

Ryssdal: And this of course happens as Iowa goes to the polls on the 3rd of January. Or goes to the caucuses, I guess.

Newport: Yeah, the caucuses. We don't know for sure whether or not this heated election environment that's going to really get hot starting with Iowa and then New Hampshire, is going to affect economic confidence, but we're looking very carefully to see if what's going on in Washington now, whether or not that's going to derail what we see as a more positive trend in consumer confidence.

Ryssdal: And we'll have you back to talk about it. Frank Newport, the editor in chief of Gallup. Our partnership with them is called Attitude Check. Frank, thanks a lot.

Newport: You bet.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.

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