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NBC News poll finds widespread concern about fate of nation as Biden takes office

Few are expressing optimism in the wake of one of the nation's most contentious elections in its history.

ATLANTA — On the eve of President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, America is more concerned about the fate of the nation than ever, according to an NBC News poll.

The poll found a startling level of pessimism in the wake of one of the nation's most contentious elections in its history, which culminated with the unprecedented sacking of the U.S. Capitol by a mob who believed it illegitimate.

Just 44% of respondents to the poll said they were "mainly hopeful and optimistic" about the future of the country, by far the lowest level since the question was first asked in 1998.

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Last April, even as society was shutting down and uncertainty was at its peak about about how the novel coronavirus would upend life, still 61% of people said they were "mainly hopeful and optimistic."

In this poll, conducted earlier this month among 1,000 registered voters in the days after the Capitol riots, more than half of respondents - 53% - said they were "mainly worried or pessimistic" about the future of the country.

That, also, is comfortably the highest level of that response ever recorded by NBC News.

Asked whether the country is "headed in the right direction" or "off on the wrong track," 73% said the nation was on the wrong track, compared to 21% who believe it is going in the right direction.

The 73% "wrong track" figure approaches the record high NBC News recorded of 78% in October 2008, when the financial crisis posed the possibility of a new Great Depression.

The pessimism does not necessarily extend to Biden himself, who was still given a 60% approval rating for the way he is handling the presidential transition - far higher than the 44% President Donald Trump received in January 2017. 

A majority, 55%, believe he will "return the country to a more typical way that past presidents have governed the country."

Reflecting the polarization of the nation, though, just 15% said they were "extremely confident" Biden has the "right set of goals and policies" and 38% said they were "not at all confident," numbers that compare much more closely to Trump's 14% and 44% figures in January 2017 than they do to past presidents.

And asked if the country will be able to begin to unite, or remain divided, an overwhelming 73% said we will remain divided.