In the midst of a global financial crisis and a lame-duck presidency—and the impending election between Barack Obama and John McCain—80 percent of Americans believe the United States faces a "leadership crisis" today, according to a new poll. Three years ago, that figure was 65 percent.
Another sign of how bad things are: The traditional news media, usually near the bottom of popularity contests, ranked higher on the survey's leadership index than business leaders, Congress, and, in particular, the executive branch, which finished dead last. Confidence in the executive branch plummeted for the third year in a row, with 60 percent of Americans saying it gave them "not much" or "no" confidence, up from 49 percent last year.
The poll, undertaken jointly by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and the Merriman River Group, asked 997 U.S. citizens about their faith in American leadership today, which of 13 leading sectors they trusted, and how they conceived of the president's role.
Only 2 of 13 sectors—military and medical—won a moderate amount of American confidence. The military's lead has lasted for four years in a row.
"It's a combination of multiple crises all at once and anxiety over the imminent change in our country's leadership," said Seth Rosenthal, the study's main author and a fellow at the center. "People don't know what will happen."
Confidence in business leaders dropped more than in any other sector. Of course, it couldn't have helped that the survey was taken in mid-September—during a market meltdown that included the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the bailout of insurance giant AIG, and the debate over the $700 billion rescue plan.
Most Americans do see the election as an important watershed for the country. For many, it would bring improvement. Nearly 39 percent of Americans said the country would be better after the election, while 7 percent said "worse." One quarter wrote in that it "depends who wins"—an option that wasn't even included in the question.