Thirty-five percent of Americans name unemployment as the most important problem facing the country, the highest percentage since the economic slowdown began and higher than at any point since October 1983, according to the latest Gallup Poll on the subject. The economy in general was named second and the lack of health care third.
From the beginning of the economic slowdown through 2009, mentions of “the economy” in general were consistently the top issue. In the past year, as the country’s unemployment rate has stayed in the 9 percent range, the economy and unemployment have been the top concern of Americans for some time now.
In addition to unemployment and the economy, three other issues are mentioned by at least 10 percent of Americans in the Feb. 2-5 poll — health care, dissatisfaction with government, and the federal budget deficit. Although it has dominated the news lately, the situation in Egypt is mentioned by only a small number of respondents and does not rank among the top 10 problems, according to Gallup’s polling.
The top five problems overall are also the top five among each party group, though with some minor differences. Democrats are more likely than independents and Republicans to mention unemployment and are about twice as likely to mention health care. Republicans are more likely than independents or Democrats to mention the federal budget deficit, which ranks as the No. 3 issue among Republicans. Republicans are about equally likely to mention the economy and unemployment.
“All told, 7 in 10 Americans mention some economic issue when asked to name the most important problem facing the country, and the top two problems Americans cite as the most important ones facing the country directly reflect on the economic situation in the United States,” the Gallup analyst concludes. “Until the economy improves significantly, that trend is likely to continue, since Americans usually rate the economy, or specific aspects of it such as unemployment or inflation, as the most important problem over other issues whenever the country is in a recession or economic slump.”
The economy’s health over the next 20 months will be important in determining whether President Obama will be re-elected, according to Gallup.
“One key to Obama’s winning a second term could be whether mentions of unemployment continue to go up or decline,” Gallup concludes. “Unemployment ranked high as a most important problem in 1976, 1984, and 1992 — all years in which an incumbent president was trying to win an election.”
The general trend in mentions of unemployment rose over the course of 1976 and 1992, prior to Gerald Ford’s and George H.W. Bush’s defeats, but declined in the months leading up to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 victory.
The dilemma facing policy makers here is that most economists agree it will take more government spending, not less, to stimulate the economy and create jobs. While the new tea party Republicans in Congress are spending their time debating how to cut the budget, rather than creating jobs, they may be addressing the hot button issue of the conservative base of their party, but they are not addressing the top problems named by Americans of both parties.
So it may seem like good politics for the Republicans, but it is not good for the country, and in the end, that’s what matters to people who turn out to vote.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 2-5, with a random sample of 1,015 adults, aged 18 and older, living in the continental U.S., selected using random-digit-dial sampling. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
© 2011, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.