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The morning of the SOTU, The Hill newspaper reports on a CNN/Opinion Research poll that found the “American public is the most optimistic it has been about the state of the country since 2007.”

Similarly, Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index – which measures both Americans’ perceptions of current economic conditions and their economic outlook – has found a steady increase in the public’s optimism about the economy.

These are interesting observations at a time when unemployment remains at 9.4% (according to the DOL), and the economy continues to rank as the number one concern for most Americans. (According to Pew Research 87 percent of the public “say that strengthening the economy should be a top priority for the president and Congress,” with 84% rating “improving the job situation” as also a top priority.)

So considering the economic conditions haven’t changed dramatically in recent months, the question is: what is shifting public opinion in a positive direction?

The shooting in Tucson, AZ and the era of civility following it (e.g. President Obama’s bump in the polls), may have a little to do with the change in opinion; but, I’m inclined to think it’s something deeper.

The state-of-affairs haven’t changed much, but the players have. While the midterm elections were not an endorsement of the GOP, they were a referendum on the failed, top-down economic policies of the current administration and a cry to restrain spending, lower taxes, and produce budget surpluses.

With the influx of new Tea Party candidates, supporters of limited government have regained a voice in the conversation. During the lame duck session, Republicans helped pushed for the extension of the Bush tax cuts, and with the help of their new members they have begun talking seriously about deep spending cuts at the national and state levels, are working to repeal Obamacare, and have introduced entitlement reform ideas such as Medicare vouchers and personal Social Security accounts.

The arrival of libertarian-leaning lawmakers and the push for free-market oriented policy prescriptions seems to be having an effect on public opinion. Rasmussen Reports found that 68% of likely voters (a much stronger indicator than the public-at-large) prefer a government with fewer services and lower taxes. In fact, this is almost the greatest support for the idea, since Rasmussen began polling on the question in 2006.

Add to this, the fact that President Obama has been forced to learn the art of compromise and is slowly creeping back to the center on issues like the debt-limit.

While the hard work is yet to come, there are clear signs that the public is supportive of a move toward more limited government.  It’s good news that Americans feels optimistic about the country’s future. But it’s even better news when you consider why.