My colleague Lydia Saad had an important analysis last week looking in depth at Americans’ views of the most important problem facing the nation. This question is not a definitive way to assess the priorities that Americans assign to their government (more on that below), but it certainly provides important insights into what is bothering Americans, or at the least, insights into what is in the front of their minds.
- The economy
- Jobs and unemployment
- Problems with the way the government works
- The federal budget deficit
The big differences came on issues like terrorism, Social Security, education, Medicare, tax fairness -- which were in the top seven when listed specifically by Pew, but which were not mentioned very much at all in response to the top-of-mind question Gallup asked.
It appears these are important issues when people are reminded of them, but that they are not top-of-mind because -- we can assume -- the public doesn't think they are currently in the "problem" category. A respondent can say, for example, that it is a top priority for the government to keep up its work on preventing terrorism, but that respondent may not think of terrorism when asked to name a top problem.
That's by far the biggest "swing" in the most important problem data. The Pew Research poll showed a similar partisan difference in the priority attached to the deficit, with 84% of Republicans saying it is a top priority for the president and Congress, compared with 68% of Democrats.
- Unemployment and jobs
- Problems with government and Congress
- Gun control
- Crime and violence
- The environment
- Poor leadership and corruption
- Ethical, moral, and religious decline
- The judicial system and courts
Again, the big difference: The deficit is not on the radar of Democrats and is certainly very much on the radar of Republicans.
And it is clear that Americans’ economic confidence has been improving. In October 2008, the Economic Confidence Index was at -65 for the week beginning Oct. 6. Now, the Economic Confidence Index is much better, at -11 as of last week. It is clear, then, that the economy as the top concern of Americans has been waning from an overwhelmingly dominant concern to just a concern.
At the same time, a major contradiction in American public opinion is the well-known fact that Americans like a number of the functions government provides, including defense and entitlement programs, but that Americans tend to think the government is doing too much, and that it is inefficient. The exact role that government should play in American life, and how the government process can be improved, are two of the most important questions facing the country in the months and years ahead.