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Friday, October 30, 2009

It's More Than Just the Length of the Bill

The healthcare bill now before the House is 1,990 pages long. The length of the bill has been highlighted extensively by various commentators. Other commentators are now highlighting the extensive coverage of the length.

To be fair, I should point out that the margins in the printing of the bill are quite big and there is a lot of double-spacing. Plus, anyone who has received communication from a lawyer is well aware of the length to which legalese is often stretched to cover every possible contingency of a given situation. Many other legislative bills are quite long. Given the scope of what is involved here, perhaps the length is not surprising.

This latter point -- the “scope of what is involved here” -- is particularly germane at the moment. The purpose of my writing this blog is to look through the eyes of the people at the decisions that are being made, or should be made, by elected representatives. In theory, the people are in ultimate control of the direction of the country. This occurs through the processes of elections, impeachments, recalls, and so forth. In practice, it doesn't matter who is making decisions. Attention should be paid to the views of the people.

With that in mind, I believe most Americans would not object to the admirably positive title of the House bill: “Affordable Health Care for America Act.” And I'm not sure there be much objection to the admirable objective of the bill, which is stated right up front in two different places: “To provide affordable, quality health care for all Americans and reduce the growth in health care spending, and for other purposes.”

(Well, maybe there would be some objection. As Fortune's Geoff Colvin put it so well a while back: reducing healthcare spending is in reality reducing revenue for American businesses. I’m not sure that hospitals, doctors, nurses, technicians, hospital janitors, manufacturers of CT scanning machines, and insurance companies would all agree that reducing the revenues associated with their businesses is a wholly positive idea. But that’s another matter.)

Still, one might well wonder why a bill with the goal of providing affordable and quality healthcare to all Americans isn’t being supported by 100% of the American people.

A good question. The most obvious answer is the long-standing focus in American political history on goals versus methods. Americans are very sensitive to the methods used to bring about putative social good. Sometimes as much as they are to the goals themselves. Economic and racial equity, preserving the environment, preventing future terrorist attacks on the U.S., and keeping all Americans employed are goals with which many Americans would agree. But history has taught us that the methods either used or proposed to be used to bring these goals about are often quite disputatious.

There are two concerns here. The theoretical. And the practical.

The healthcare bill itself is testimony to the fact that the U.S. government is taking upon itself the responsibility of enacting laws that bring about affordable, quality healthcare. In theory, not all Americans believe that it is the role of the U.S. government to be doing these things. In fact, Gallup research this year shows that this view of the proper role of government in Americans' daily and social lives is a central cleaving point in partisan politics. Democrats and those more liberally oriented believe that it is indeed the role of the government to intervene in society in order to ameliorate problems and bring about social good. Republicans and those more conservatively oriented are much less likely to accept this premise. In general, a majority of Americans appear concerned that government is attempting to do too much. More specifically, some research shows the same sentiment when it comes to health insurance.

Keep in mind, here, that the issue is not the much-focused-upon public option; i.e., some form of direct government running of healthcare. Rather, the issue is the role of government in intervention and management and policy setting for the societal institutions that deal directly with healthcare.

Those in favor of government’s attempts to bring about affordable, quality healthcare for Americans focus most on the problem. Many Americans, they argue, do not have affordable or quality healthcare. These people have little chance of getting healthcare coverage unless the government intervenes through some type of legislative action.

Those against the government’s attempts to bring about affordable, quality healthcare for Americans focus not on the problem per se, which they acknowledge, but rather on whether or not it is the role of government to be the institution or agency that fixes the problem.

Therein lies the philosophic distinction.

Then there are the practical considerations. The self-evident complexity of the bill is testimony to the problems with the attempts to craft policy that changes one of the most significant economic sectors of the U.S. economy. Americans have a low opinion of Congress in general. They believe that about half of tax dollars sent to Washington are already wasted. Americans have more confidence in themselves than they do in the legislative branch of government. There just isn’t a lot of confidence in the ability of the government to manage such a massive policy. At least for some.

It should be noted that Americans actually do have a great deal of confidence at the moment in one branch of government -- the military. So, in theory, it’s possible that the federal government can earn public confidence in its ability to oversee massive programs and bureaucracies. But it is the challenge for those supporting a healthcare reform bill to convince Americans that other parts of government can perform as well.

As we go into this next phase of the healthcare reform saga, Americans appear to be about evenly split on their position on a new healthcare bill. How public opinion shifts going forward will depend in part on the degree to which Americans accept the premise that government should be involved in fixing healthcare. It will also depend on the degree to which Americans pereceive that government would be able to do so.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Still Bifurcated

If the president and Congress were to attempt to follow the will of the people in terms of healthcare reform, what should they do at this point in the long, drawn-out process?

On the basic question of “go/no go” on a new law, there is no clear answer. The people remain divided. If healthcare reform were put to a vote in a national referendum, it would be a “too-close-to-call” election. (The idea of a national referendum quite interestingly raises the question of whether we would be better off if all of the healthcare lobbying currently aimed at the people’s elected representatives was, instead, aimed at the people themselves. But that’s another question.)

I have to say this situation is fairly remarkable. At least to me. The money spent, the legislative hours devoted, and the cumulative amount of news coverage devoted to the healthcare debate in recent months has been significant. To say the least.

And yet, the American public has not shifted in a profoundly positive or negative direction on the whole issue. Neither side, at this point, can claim a victory in the playing field of public opinion.

I have in front of me four recent polls in which people are asked what we call the “ballot” question on healthcare reform -- basically whether they support or oppose a healthcare reform act.

Click here for a full discussion of our most recent Gallup measure. In the past, we asked people to tell us whether they wanted their elected representative to vote for or against a new healthcare law. In this most recent poll, we decided to get at healthcare reform attitudes in a somewhat different way. We asked respondents to choose among three alternatives:

In response to this initial question, the “nays” have an eight percentage point edge. But we followed up that 39% “depends” category and asked which way they lean. Results? A closer outcome -- 49% opposed or leaning toward being opposed, 44% in favor or leaning toward being in favor. (Note the usual, huge partisan split).

Now, let’s turn to a recent CNN/Opinion Research question. Forty-nine percent in favor of “Barack Obama’s plan to reform healthcare,” 49% against.

OK, let’s move on to an ABC News/The Washington Post poll question. Although worded in still a different way, it too shows about the same thing: 45% support “the proposed changes to the healthcare system being developed by Congress and the Obama administration,” 48% opposition.

Finally, let’s come to the research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Given its mandate to focus on health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation has been tracking the healthcare debate in some depth on a regular basis.

In the release of its October data, KFF researchers decided to emphasize the finding that “...public support for health reform [is] unchanged since last month, with more in favor than opposed.” This conclusion is based on a question juxtaposing two alternatives: (1) “we cannot afford to take on healthcare reform right now” and (2) “it is more important than ever to take on healthcare reform now.” Given these choices, the public comes down 55% to 41% in favor of the latter.

This is not, to my way of thinking, a direct “ballot” question. It doesn’t ask directly about passing a new healthcare bill, but rather about “taking on healthcare reform”. A second KFF question (click here for the precise wording of all KFF questions) is a little more direct. It gives respondents three choices: Congress and the president should (1) continue trying to pass a major reform of the healthcare system (2) stop trying to pass a major reform this year and instead work on passing a more limited version (3) leave healthcare reform for another time.

The percent choosing each alternative? 49%, 22%, 26%, respectively. If we add together the last two as representing a “don’t pass in present form” sentiment, we come to the conclusion that 49% of Americans want a major reform passed this year, while 48% either want only a more limited version passed or no version at all.

I’m sure that supporters of healthcare reform would have hoped that, by this point, a clear majority of Americans would support its passage. It hasn’t happened. I’m sure that opponents of healthcare reform would have hoped that, by this point, a clear majority would be opposed to the passage of a new healthcare reform law. That hasn’t happened either. Apparently the pro-reform arguments have been no more effective in swaying public opinion that the anti-reform arguments that counter them.

I have spent so many years looking at public opinion data that I often come to think of the American public as a person. That person would be mightily conflicted at the moment. Perhaps seeking psychiatric help when it comes to this complex issue. But the heretofore bifurcated mental state of the American Person remains highly bifurcated. No psychological resolution in sight.

Some of this is politics. As you no doubt noticed in the graph above, views on healthcare reform are very highly partisan. Given the highly politicized nature of the argument on healthcare reform, and the nature of party identification of Americans, we would expect perhaps to find stronger support for healthcare reform at this point than is the case. Independents are breaking against at the moment, yielding the more even distribution of sentiment.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lt. Col. Butler's Excellent Proposal

Here’s something that caught my eye for reasons that will soon become evident.

An obviously insightful Marine Corps officer, Lt. Col. Glen Butler, published an op-ed piece in The New York Times on Monday in which he asks, “Why not now create a survey for our experienced Afghanistan veterans and those still serving in Afghanistan, and ask them what course of action they think we should pursue?”

This is an intriguing extension of the basic principle that there is great value in the collective wisdom of large numbers of people. As Butler notes in his piece, “This would be a rapid way to get input straight from the front to the very top of the command, and you’d be amazed at the depth and breadth of the answers the troops will provide.”

I'm sure not everyone agrees. Objections are almost always raised by some critics when there is talk of studying the views of the common people in regards to policy decisions. In this case, no doubt some would immediately argue that the military is not a democracy. Some would raise scary examples of platoon leaders stopping to conduct surveys of their men before charging a nearby enemy stronghold. Or of ships stalled at sea while the captain analyzed survey returns from the crew assessing the majority's will on whether to steam to port or to starboard.

But as Butler points out, asking for input on general strategy is really just an extension of what already goes on.

A huge amount of military intelligence flows through today’s battle commands and through the offices of the Pentagon and the Department of Defense policy makers. Nevertheless, smart commanders are always on the lookout for still more input. Commanders “go to the front”, scout about, visit foxholes, and in general get involved in figuring out what is happening out where the action is. Taking systematic, scientific surveys of those on the front lines is a more precise extension of this intelligence gathering.

Butler does not suggest that the chain of command be shifted or altered. He does not suggest that actual decisions on strategy and tactics be dictated by the views of the troops on the ground. What he does is recognize the great value inherent in taking advantage of a potentially valuable source of military intelligence.

Front-line troops -- like workers in a factory, teachers in schools, clerks in retail stores, and, for that matter, average citizens living average lives -- gain a great deal of insight into what is going on around them. The people who live and breathe a situation day in and day out are often aware of and sensitive to things that leaders at higher levels are not.

For many issues involved in the swirling chaos that is contemporary Afghanistan, who would know more than the men and women who are down at ground level dealing with the reality of all that is going on, 24/7? These people are not privy to all the intelligence and information that high level commanders and decision-makers take advantage of. But they are privy to much on the ground that is potentially just as valuable. To mix ground-level opinions about the tactics and strategy involved in the war into the policy-making mix would seem to make a lot of sense.

This is an extension of the principle I argue for in Polling Matters: Why Leaders Should Pay Attention to the Wisdom of the People. Collected together, the views of many people are often wiser than the views of the few. Smart and enlightened leaders take advantage of this fundamental law of nature.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Profound and Positive Effect?

In his weekend radio address, President Obama said that passing health insurance reform would “...make a profound and positive difference in the lives of the American people.”

This statement comes in the middle of a portion of the address in which the President in essence pits the people against “lobbyists and the special interests.” Obama argues that passing health insurance reform represents a challenge to see if “...we as a nation are capable of tackling our toughest challenges, if we can serve the national interest despite the unrelenting efforts of the special interests...”

Implicit in this argument are two assumptions. First, a starkly negative view of the impact of lobbyists and special interests. Second, a starkly positive view of the virtues of the healthcare insurance reform plan as envisioned by Obama.

We are not shocked by the second assumption, of course. Most leaders are convinced that what they are proposing is a good thing. That’s particularly true at this juncture in the healthcare reform debate in which Obama has invested so much.

The law of cognitive dissonance highlights the difficulties that would arise in Obama allowed himself doubts at this point. Indeed, as was the case with President George W. Bush and Iraq, once a leader stakes a strong position on the correctness of a position, there is a tendency for that leader to ever more strongly pronounce the virtues of that policy, reinforcing him or herself in the process as much as convincing others. (And more practically, of course, history suggests that without relentless pressure, nothing gets done in the highly partisan cauldron of competing interests and philosophies that is Washington).

Re the first assumption, Obama and his speech writers are not going too far out on a limb when they cast lobbyists as villains. Americans give lobbyists a 5% honesty/ethics rating, tying them at the bottom of all occupations tested with telemarketers, and slightly below car salesmen. (Obama also won’t upset the average American by casting health insurance companies as villains, since insurance companies rate near the bottom of the list when Americans are asked whom they trust on the health care debate front. )

Of course, lobbyists are not all that far below the 12% honesty and ethical ratings Americans give Congressmen (nurses are at the top of the list with an 84% rating), so Obama isn’t going to win the hearts and minds of the American people by a huge margin if he pits the honesty and integrity of the members of Congress working on the legislation against the honesty and ethics of the lobbyists trying to influence it. It's a rough wash. Obama can, however, take comfort in the fact that he himself still polls well on healthcare reform.

But, I’m not going to get into the value of lobbyists argument too deeply here. My real focus is on Obama’s second assumption -- that his healthcare legislation, if left unimpeded by outside influences, would make a profound and positive difference in the lives of the American people.

I can’t find strong confirmation from my continuing review of public opinion data that Americans share Obama’s “profound and positive” viewpoint.

We have new polling (in conjunction with USA Today) that will be released this week here at The poll asked Americans if a new healthcare bill would make the quality of healthcare they received, their healthcare coverage, the cost of their healthcare, and the hassle of insurance company requirements better, worse, or if it would make no difference. A large percentage on each dimension say it will make no difference. But more Americans say that a healthcare law would make these things worse than say it would make them better.

In a similar fashion, a recent CBS News poll found that 31% of Americans say the “healthcare reforms under consideration in Congress” will hurt them personally, only 18% say they will help them, and the rest say they will not have much effect. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 19% of Americans say that new healthcare reform legislation would make the quality of their healthcare better.

The September Kaiser Family Foundation tracking survey found slightly more positive results. Their question: “If the president and Congress do pass healthcare reform, do you think that would make [LIST} better, worse, or would it stay about the same?” Kaiser finds on balance more Americans saying that the quality of their healthcare and the cost of their healthcare would be made better than would be made worse, by margins of 31% to 21%, and 37% to 27% respectively. Still, looked at differently, the significant majority of Americans in response to this wording say the quality and cost of healthcare would either stay the same or get worse. And the Kaiser survey shows that more Americans say that their choice of doctors and hospitals and their wait times for non-emergency treatment would get worse than better.

All in all, it is difficult to find evidence (based on the survey data with which I am familiar) that Americans agree with President Obama that new healthcare legislation will make a profound and positive difference in their lives. Quite the contrary. The majority of Americans appear to be convinced that new healthcare legislation would either make no difference in their lives, or would make their lives worse.

A paradox, of sorts, arises from the fact that large majorities of Americans do not reject the overall idea of new healthcare reform legislation. In our new poll, only a minority say they outright disapprove of legislation being passed at some point (although not necessarily immediately).

Other recent results are mixed, with the Kaiser Family Foundation poll being the most positive -- finding that 50% say Congress and the president should “continue trying to pass a major reform of the healthcare system,” while 25% say that they should “stop” and work on passing a more limited version, with 22% saying leave healthcare reform for another time. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll out Tuesday morning shows that 45% favor and 48% oppose “the proposed changes to the healthcare system being developed by Congress and the Obama administration."

Although there is variation, none of these show overwhelming rejection of the idea of healthcare reform. In other words, the majority of Americans don’t see what’s in it for them, but their opinion on passing a new plan remains mixed.

Still, I think the bottom line is that while Obama personally may be convinced that new healthcare reform legislation will have a profoundly positive effect in the lives of the American people, his viewpoint is not shared by the majority of the actual American people at this time.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Update: The People and Healthcare Reform

The New York Times reported on Sunday that “The administration had to devote the early part of September to trying to change public opinion . . . because opposition at angry town-hall-style meetings in August had been so damaging.” The piece quotes Drew Altman, chief executive of the Kaiser Family Foundation, as saying: “. . . public opinion is still somewhat up for grabs.” The story's author, Katharine Seelye, also reports: "Voters may support individual components of a healthcare bill, but no clear majority seems convinced of the merits of an overhaul."

Then, we find the following observation embedded in a piece by Ben Pershing in Saturday’s The Washington Post, “Polls have shown broad support for the general idea of health-care reform, but opinion is more mixed for specific proposals such as the public option.”

We thus have it from The New York Times that public opinion is up for grabs, juxtaposed with the assertion carried in The Washington Post that there is broad support for healthcare reform. And The Times says that voters support "individual components" of a healthcare bill, while The Post says that opinion is more mixed for "specific proposals."

These two characterizations of public opinion on healthcare reform appear to be reaching somewhat divergent conclusions.

To some degree, as is true with Talmudic scholars and Supreme Court justices, the issue is one of interpretation. What exactly does Pershing mean by “broad support for the general idea of health-care reform?” For that matter, what does Altman mean when he says public opinion is up for grabs?

We don't know for sure. But scanning across the existing corpus of public opinion data on the topic, I see more evidence for the “up for grabs” assertion than for the “broad support” assertion.

Our deliberately straightforward question on healthcare reform here at Gallup asks: “Would you advise your member of Congress to vote for or against a healthcare bill this year, or do you not have an opinion?” This phrasing includes a behavioral aspect, much like a classic vote choice or referendum question. This gives respondents a straightforward way of thinking about the situation.

The results from Oct. 1-4 show that 40% of Americans would tell their representative to vote for, 36% against, and 25% no opinion. (Support is higher when those who are undecided are asked which way they lean). A recent Pew poll showed the public opposed by a 47% to 30% margin when asked: “As of right now, do you generally favor or generally oppose the healthcare proposals being discussed in Congress?" Other recent polls are a little more mixed, but it's hard to find a poll showing "broad support." If by “up for grabs” we assume Altman meant that there is no clear-cut majority supporting a new healthcare bill, I would think he's right.

Now, on to Pershing’s second point, in which he says that support is ". . . mixed for specific proposals such as the public option.” We could ponder this statement for a while. Broadly speaking, the assertion is hard to argue with. There are many specific proposals that have been tested in the research. Support is indeed mixed, at the least in the sense that support varies across the proposals.

Pershing mentions only one such specific proposal, the public option. Narrowing our focus just to the public option, we find that opinion is not so much mixed as it is broadly supportive. Most polls show the public option, variously described, gains the favor of clear majorities of Americans. For example, recent polling by Altman's organization, the Kaiser Family Foundation, finds support for the public option across two different ways of asking about it. (Kaiser asked half of respondents in their poll to say yea or nay to this proposal: "Creating a government-administered public health insurance option similar to Medicare to compete with private health insurance plans," with the other half responding to the same proposal but without the ". . . similar to Medicare" phrase. The two alternatives get 57% and 59% support.)

Bottom line: No broad or overwhelming support from Americans for the general idea of new healthcare legislation, but fairly strong support for many specific proposals, including a public option.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Public is Split. What Now?

The public often provides a fairly clear cut direction for policy makers on issues. For example, the majority back in 1998 said, “Don’t impeach Bill Clinton.” The majority within the last year has said, “Don’t bail out General Motors.” The majority say, “Don’t make all abortions illegal.” (Of course, policy makers ignored the public on the first two of these). But there is no such clear majority guidance from the public on the two hot button issues of the moment -- Afghanistan and healthcare. The public appears to be pretty much divided on both (see here and here for Gallup’s latest research on both issues).

If there were a referendum on passing a new healthcare law, it would be very close. If there were a referendum on sending additional troops to Afghanistan, it would also be very close. Phrased differently, if President Obama or leaders of Congress were to call me and ask for the will of the people on these issues, I would have to respond: “Divided.”

Does this leave our representatives in the lurch -- particularly those who are looking to fulfill their roles by understanding what the constituents back home are thinking and feeling? Not necessarily. There is wisdom to be gleaned from an awareness of public opinion in any situation.

A couple of thoughts along those lines:

1. The fact that public opinion is split on both healthcare and Afghanistan underscores a fact of life about which I’m sure leaders are already (painfully, perhaps) aware. These are both tough, complex issues.

A divided public shows that arguments on both sides of the issue are being perceived as plausible and are attracting adherents. The issues are not black and white. There are obviously strong arguments on both sides of the ledger. This could mean that leaders have to try harder on these issues to be less intransigent and more open to compromise. Leaders on both sides of the issue may need to "seek first to understand" before seeking to be understood. Leaders may need to soften their hard stances and work harder to integrate their own collective wisdom. This all makes the job of decision making harder and more time-consuming -- but to good effect.

2. As noted, the public is split on the broad question of approving a new healthcare law and sending more troops to Afghanistan. But the public is not so split on some of the more specific issues involved. These facts of life provide important lessons. For example, despite the fact that opinion on sending troops to Afghanistan is evenly split, 80% say it is important to keep troops there in order to help prevent terrorist attacks on the U.S. Almost 7 in 10 say it is important to keep troops there in order to keep al Qaeda from taking over the country.

So why is approval for sending more troops not also in clear majority territory? One explanation: Americans are not yet overwhelmingly convinced that our current actions are leading to progress toward these goals. This could mean that Obama, if he decides to send in more troops, needs to make the connection stronger between military action and achieving what Americans perceive as these important goals. In other words, will sending more troops to Afghanistan accomplish that goal?

Phrased differently, will the cost in terms of dollars and lives result in a sufficiently lowered probability of terrorist attacks -- enough to make it worthwhile? (This is very similar to the discussions now taking place in medical circles regarding massive disease screening programs. Does the benefit of lives saved outweigh the costs involved in the screening, including the costs of invasive treatments that follow the many false positives that arise as a result of any massive screening program?)

Significant majorities agree with many specific elements of a new healthcare plan. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that two-thirds or more of Americans favored a requirement that all Americans have health insurance, that insurance companies have to sell health coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, and that there should be limits on malpractice amounts. Half or more favor requiring employers to pay into a government fund if they do not provide health insurance to their employees, a public option plan (see here for Pew’s wording on the public option question).

So why is support for a new healthcare bill not also in clear majority territory?

Here are a couple of hypotheses. One is -- as mentioned above -- the trade off between costs and benefits. It may be that Americans favor, in principle, the many worthy goals of health reform, but don’t think spending huge amounts of money to achieve those goals is worth it. (See here for my discussion of these issues).

Or it could be a connect-the-dots issue.

Americans may not be convinced that a mega-healthcare bill passed by government will be able to accomplish all of these admirable goals. Remember that Americans are pretty much down on Congress at the moment. To name two facts of life: Congress has a 21% job approval rating and Americans believe that 50 cents out of every dollar is wasted. (This is the issue with many government programs. The goal of the wonderfully named “No Child Left Behind” Act is hard to argue with. It is much less clear to many observers -- including the informed segment of the public we interviewed recently -- that the massive program will, in fact, achieve this goal.)

So. Two key questions for these representatives, at least from my perspective: [1] How do you know that the heavy costs associated with a new healthcare bill and sending more troops to Afghanistan will be balanced by clear benefits? [2] How do you know that enacting a new healthcare law and sending more troops to Afghanistan will clearly, effectively, and demonstrably achieve the goals they are, in theory, set out to achieve?

Monday, October 5, 2009

Americans Not Likely to Be Upset if No Climate Change Bill Is Passed This Year

It's unlikely that the American public is going to be greatly upset by reports that Congress will not be passing a new energy/climate change bill this year.

A blog posting by Darren Samuelsohn of ClimateWire quotes top White House energy adviser Carol Browner: “I think we'd all agree the likelihood that you'd have a bill signed by the president on comprehensive energy by the time we go in December is not likely." (This is a significant issue in light of the very important international summit on the environment scheduled for Copenhagen in December.) A story by Julie Eilperin in The Washington Post makes the same point: “But on Friday, Obama's top domestic climate adviser, Carol Browner, said it was "not likely" that a final bill would be signed by the president before Copenhagen.”

Samuelsohn’s piece goes on to discuss the possible implications of a new environment/climate bill on the 2010 midterm elections. He implies that our elected representatives are worried about passing a potentially controversial and reaction-generating bill leading into an election. One does not have to look further than the current healthcare reform process to recognize how controversial efforts to pass major new policy laws can become.

The issue is the attempt to deal with climate change by changing the way energy is produced. That includes the ever-controversial "cap and trade" proposals.

Where is the will of the people on this issue?

Climate change and/or energy policy is not a significant priority for the public at this time. I don’t think Americans will be catastrophically depressed by the fact that new legislation relating to climate change and/or energy is being postponed. No research I’m aware of shows that the environment generally, and the global warming more specifically, register high on the American public's list of most important problems and/or priorities. In fact, global warming is way down the list of environmental problems from the public's perspective. Check out our latest Gallup report on this here.

Asked spontaneously to name the most important problem facing the country, as we do every month, only about 1% say the environment and 1% energy.

I just reviewed various ways that other polling firms have dealt with measuring the people’s priorities.

The most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll doesn’t even include the environment or climate change in its list of priorities. It does include energy. And finds that 4% choose energy as the top priority for the nation. A Bloomberg poll included “climate change” per se as one of the five “most important issues facing the country right now” respondents were asked to choose among. Climate change was dead last with 2% of the choices. A Diageo Hotline poll this summer gave registered voters four choices, including “energy and climate change initiatives” as most important in determining how "you vote in the elections for Congress in 2010". The results: “energy and climate change initiatives” was chosen by 7%, dead last on their list.

Of course, in all of these polls the economy is the dominant choice. Our research, in fact, shows that one big problem for advocates of a high intensity focus on climate change is that economic priorities are so dominant. At least at the moment. As I indicated in this story I wrote back in March: “For the first time in Gallup's 25-year history of asking Americans about the trade-off between environmental protection and economic growth, a majority of Americans say economic growth should be given the priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent.”

We just don’t see Americans clamoring for Congress to push forth legislation that would focus on the environment, climate change, or energy policies.

This is despite the best efforts of former vice president Al Gore and many others who have toiled ceaselessly to convince the average American of the importance of and necessity for change relating to climate change and the environment. As one pollster said in an interview with U.S. News & World Report earlier this year: "It's Al Gore's greatest frustration. We seem less concerned than more about global warming over the years . . . Despite the movies and publicity and all that, we're just not seeing it take off with the American public. And that was occurring even before the latest economic recession."

Actually, that pollster was me, as you discovered if you clicked on the link. I was extrapolating a little, given that I have not, in fact, talked with Al Gore personally, and do not know for sure if the failure of the public to come around to his position on global warming is his greatest frustration. But it’s a reasonable inference that the former vice president and current Nashville resident is very worried about the apparent lack of impact of his efforts to raise the public’s consciousness about climate change and associated problems.

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