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Why Washington and its debt woes eclipse 'jobs' as public's top concerns

The mood shift, which showed up in a new Gallup poll, doesn't coincide with marked improvement in the jobs outlook. Rather, it indicates that Americans are becoming more worried about Washington's management of debt and other fiscal matters.

By Staff writer / January 16, 2013

The US Capitol is seen at sunrise in Washington earlier this month.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Consider whether the following statement sounds accurate: The economy has become a much less urgent concern for Americans over the past three months. That doesn't sound quite right, does it?

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But now get this: A new Gallup poll does find a dramatic shift since October in the things Americans list as the "most important problem facing this country."

Back then, "the economy" was far and away the frontrunner, with "unemployment/jobs" solidly in second place. Together, those two concerns accounted for nearly two-thirds of responses (63 percent). By this month, that share had fallen to just 37 percent in the Gallup survey.

Today, the 21 percent whose top choice is "the economy" are essentially matched by the 20 percent who say federal deficit/debt is the most important problem for the country. Another 18 percent named some problem with politicians or government. (The survey was open-ended, so pollsters pooled a range of concerns about government, from poor leadership to political corruption, under that heading.)

Add it all together and concerns that center squarely on Washington (debt and politics) now outrank the combined level of concern about the economy or jobs in Gallup's survey. Put another way, for the first month since 2009, the category of "unemployment/jobs" doesn't rank ahead of those fiscal and political concerns.

Why?

The mood shift doesn't coincide with a suddenly brighter economic outlook: The unemployment rate and economic growth haven't changed much in the past three months. A more plausible explanation is that, instead of economic concerns diminishing, worries about politics are rising. And to a large exent, the two spheres of national interest overlap.

Amid headlines about a "fiscal cliff" for the economy, Americans may be concluding that their own job prospects and pocketbook health depend in significant ways on policies being determined in Washington – a place that seems to know a lot more about bickering than about grand bargains to achieve fiscal security.

Note that the Gallup survey was conducted Jan. 7-10, a few days after the White House and Congress reached a deal that averted steep tax hikes this year, but that failed to set a longer-term course toward stabilizing the national debt. The fiscal negotiations may have affected the Gallup results by underscoring a range of simmering worries in public thought, including disatisfaction with Congress, the prospect that rising debt will restrict the nation's future prosperity or force cuts in popular programs like Medicare, or concern about future stalemates in Washington over important fiscal matters.

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