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

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

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.

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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.

A Pew Research Center poll in December found, for example, that 74 percent of Americans say a combination of tax increases and spending cuts in "major programs" would be the best way to reduce federal deficits. OK, public opinion polls don't reveal any groundswell for entitlement cuts or middle-class tax hikes. But this middle-ground view stands in contrast to the prevalent sound bites emanating from Washington, where Republicans lean heavily against tax hikes while many Democrats resist entitlement restructuring (though President Obama himself has left that door ajar).

Separately, some polls show rising worry among Americans about living standards in the future. A USA Today/Gallup survey asked how likely it is that today's young people will have a better living standard than their parents. In both December and in back in 2011, a slim majority said "unlikely." By contrast, the mood had been much more optimistic, even in the recession's immediate aftermath, in January 2010.

Some economic research bears out the notion that as a country's debt level rises above normal levels, the excess borrowing becomes a drag on economic growth. "Countries with high debt must act quickly and decisively to address their fiscal problems," economists at the Bank for International Settlements concluded in 2011.

"The level of indebtedness has now reached extraordinary heights," says George Feiger, an economist who heads the wealth-management firm Contango Capital Advisors in San Francisco.

"[I'm] actually quite bullish on the underlying economy," he says, citing factors such as technological progress and new opportunities for domestic energy production. But the potential for solid growth is being cast into doubt, he says, by the failure of political leaders to chart a long-term fiscal path for the US government.

Of course, there's another side to the story of the latest Gallup poll: the apparent decline in anxiety about unemployment.

To some extent, that shift probably reflects real progress in the job market. The unemployment rate, now at 7.8 percent, is little-changed since October. But the climate for job-seekers has been improving slowly but tangibly, many economists say. One sign: The number of people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more, although still high at about 4.8 million people, has declined by more than 800,000 over the past year.

An improving housing market, meanwhile, may help explain why the number of poll respondents listing "the economy" as the top US problem has been falling.

Still, it's clear American's don't feel as if everything about the economy is back to normal. Job creation has remained tepid. An index of economic optimism, derived from a monthly Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll, is generally negative and doesn't show much change since October. Similarly, the consumer confidence index from the Conference Board fell in December, partly because Americans became more concerned about higher taxes coming in 2013.

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