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 "Big Five" problems from the perspective of the average American are:
1. The economy
2. Jobs and unemployment
3. Problems with the way the government works
4. The federal budget deficit
A Pew Research poll conducted in January used a different procedure, reading a long, laundry list of issues to respondents and asking them to rate each as a top priority for the president and Congress. The economy and jobs were at the top of both lists, and the deficit was in the top five for both.
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.
One issue that was not included in the Pew Research list, but one that people mention with frequency in response to the open-ended question, is problems with the way the government works. This is a problem more than an issue, presumably.
I recently spent some time looking at the differences in response to the "most important problem" question by political party. My conclusion: There are remarkable similarities in how Republicans and Democrats look at the world in this context, with just a few exceptions.
The biggest exception to the partisan similarity is the federal budget deficit. Twenty-two percent of Republicans spontaneously mention the deficit as the biggest problem facing the country, as opposed to only 6 percent of Democrats.
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 percent of Republicans saying it is a top priority for the president and Congress, compared with 68 percent of Democrats.
Most of the other differences between Republicans and Democrats are not large enough to be significant. Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to spontaneously mention:
• Unemployment and jobs
• Problems with government and Congress
• Gun control
• Crime and violence
• The environment
But again, most of these differences are quite slight.
In addition to the deficit, Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to mention:
• Poor leadership and corruption
• Ethical, moral, and religious decline
• The judicial system and courts
Still, the rank order of the top problems mentioned by the two partisan groups are broadly similar. For Republicans, the top five are: economy, deficit, unemployment, healthcare, government/Congress. For Democrats, the top five are: economy and unemployment (tied), government/Congress, healthcare, gun control.
Again, the big difference: The deficit is not on the radar of Democrats and is certainly very much on the radar of Republicans.
The economy as a top problem has had a perennial presence of the most important problem list since February 2008. The average percentage of Americans who mentioned the economy as the top problem across all 12 months of 2007 was eight percent. In January 2008, it was 18 percent and then jumped to 34% in February of 2008. It has basically stayed high -- above 20 percent of all mentions -- since then.
Of course, there is some relative good news on the economic front. At its zenith in November 2008, 58 percent of all most important problem mentions were "the economy." This month, February of 2013, that total is at 25 percent.
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.
Still, the not-so-good news is that the economy is still seen as a problem. And, while -11 is a vast improvement from the dark days of 2008, this number is still underwater, in the net-negative territory.
Jobs and employment are also a significant concern. The 19 percent who mention jobs specifically now is down from the high of 35 percent in February 2011, but this is still the second-most frequently mentioned category.
The federal government? The appropriate role of the federal government remains a highly significant and contentious issue, as it has been since the founding of this country. There is a great deal of data showing that Americans have a lot of concerns about government. They have a low evaluation of the federal government in general, and very low confidence in Congress and the legislative branch of government.
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.
Healthcare? The looming issue here is the ACA, the impact of which will be increasingly evident to Americans in the months ahead. The ACA, or Obamacare, is one of the nation's most politically charged issues at the moment. Like gun control, it has taken on symbolic importance for some who see it as evidence of what was discussed in the previous paragraph -- the increasing power of the federal government. For others, it is a symbol of the beneficial role that government can play in helping to ameliorate one of the nation's top problems.