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Friday, February 28, 2014

The People's Top Priority for Their Government Is Clear

All of the models we use to assess what Americans want their government to focus on converge on one primary conclusion: jobs and the economy. 

Not only is the economy the top priority according to Americans in our recent assessment of a long list of possible issues, it is also the focus area where Americans are currently least satisfied.

The accompanying chart graphically presents the convergence of these two measures -- satisfaction and priority per the American public. The upper right quadrant is the most important -- it contains the issues that have the dual distinction of being high priorities and areas of above-average dissatisfaction. Note that the economy is the farthest point to the right (the highest priority) and the closest point to the top (highest dissatisfaction) of any issue. 



Another Gallup model measures priorities in a slightly different way -- by asking Americans to name the most important problem facing the country. This technique goes back to the days of Dr. George Gallup in the late 1930s. It’s extremely valuable, because it lets us know what's bothering Americans most without our prompting them with suggestions. 

At this point in time, our open-ended most important problem measure puts jobs and the economy at the top of the list, nicely synchronous with the priority/satisfaction measure. This reinforces our conclusion: From the American public's perspective, the president and elected representatives in the House and Senate should make the economy and jobs their No. 1 focus point. 

The tricky part in this is the lack of consensus on exactly how to use government to help improve the economy and to provide more high quality jobs. In other words, we know that the public wants more jobs -- three-quarters now say it is not a good time to find a quality job -- but as far as how to create those jobs? There is no universal consensus.

The always perspicacious observer Charlie Cook recently wrote about two economists’ takes on the economy, with very divergent focus points. Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers talked about the need for less austerity and more government investment in infrastructure (i.e, New York City’s airports), while former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan talked about the impact of immigration laws on the ability to get and keep foreign talent on our shores. Those are just two of many possible ways the government could take actions that would address the people's No. 1 concern. Liberals focus on direct spending programs (ala FDR's CCC), while conservatives are more likely to focus on the government basically stepping out of the way and stripping back regulations and other controls to allow the private sector to create jobs.

So, it’s tricky -- which is the whole point. It’s a complex situation in which the ground rules are constantly changing, and therefore one that, more than ever before, deserves our elected representatives' total focus. The American people clearly want their elected representatives to leverage all of the brain power in government and all of the brain power available to government to figure out what the government should or should not be doing to improve the economy and create more quality jobs.

The economy never stands still. Huge shifts in how the economy works are characteristic of the history of our country. Right now, the biggest disruptive shift is being caused by the Internet and the constant spread of common communication and commerce. The local retail model is giving way to the national Internet retail model. There are lifestyle changes that may, among other things, result in fewer people living in urban areas wanting or needing automobiles. Physical work gives way to knowledge work. The need for local workers in many areas (lawyers, radiologists, teachers) gives way to the ability to use high-powered and much cheaper experts at a distance. And so on.

Presumably, the people of this country want their representatives to be on top of all of this, studying, examining, and thinking about the implications of these shifts for the economy and for jobs for the majority of the public going forward. It may be that, ultimately, the government simply gets out of the way and lets the economy direct itself, but our priority measures suggest that the people want their government to be more involved than that. Figuring out just what that involvement should be is the biggest challenge -- and the most important challenge -- facing the country today.

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