Americans say what ails the economy: It's politics

In an heartening sign, most Americans think the country's economic problems are solvable. The problem is they have little confidence Congress will solve them.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in June. The public has little confidence in Congress's ability to improve the economy, a poll suggests.

More than five years after the recession’s official end, Americans are still deeply worried about their economy – and they say the way forward lies in improved government.

These views are evident in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll: Nearly two-thirds of adults say they’re dissatisfied with the state of the economy. Three-fourths say they’re not confident that their children’s generation will have a better life than their own.

Some 7 in 10 say the problems in the economy mostly reflect “the inability of elected officials in Washington to get things done,” whereas only 23 percent agreed with the view that the economy has “deep and longstanding problems” that policymakers can’t do much about.

If a silver lining immediately leaps out of these numbers, it’s this: Americans aren’t rolling over and saying a difficult economy is inevitable. They want the problems fixed and they think that policies can make a difference.

But the early August poll also reveals the double challenge facing the country in the runup to midterm elections that will determine the control of the Senate. A first problem is reaching consensus about what policies will help the economy, and the follow-on conundrum is how to get a currently dysfunctional Congress to act.

The election has the potential to play a clarifying role on both those fronts, but there’s no guarantee that it will.

In fact, in the years since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, voters have already adjusted the levers of power in Washington (giving power to Republicans in the House while keeping Democrats in control of the Senate and White House) without obtaining increased satisfaction on the policy front. Public esteem of Congress has hovered at historic lows since 2010, generally with congressional approval ratings below 20. Such lows had rarely been touched in three decades of polling prior to the Great Recession.

Today, the outlook for economic policymaking looks neither easy nor impossibly hard.

Not surprisingly, for instance, Americans seem reluctant to either cut benefits for things like Social Security or to raise taxes to pay for the rising costs of such programs. Such views are one factor behind congressional inaction on entitlement reform.

Yet a recent review of opinion polls, analyzed by the Washington-area Program for Public Consultation, finds a considerable degree of consensus among residents of US counties that are “red” (majority Republican) and “blue” (majority Democratic) on a variety of policies – including economic ones.

“When respondents were asked to make up their own federal budget, there were only slight differences between respondents in red and blue districts. In both cases majorities both raised revenues and trimmed entitlements,” the report said.

A challenge, of course, is that the dynamic in Washington often seems geared toward confrontation between the parties rather than compromise. And even among the general public, the signs of consensus only go so far. In recent years more Americans have moved solidly into either liberal or conservative camps, according to Pew Research Center surveys.

Such polarization creates a big hurdle when the public consensus – and the consensus among economists – doesn’t align with an all-liberal or all-conservative agenda.

Can the Washington climate shift toward bipartisan action?

For all the recent gridlock in Washington, some analysts see reasons why policymaking momentum could pick up. One reason has to do with people in power: Folks like President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner may want to burnish their legacy by scoring some big wins if they can after the 2014 elections.

Another is the pressure of practical circumstances. A case in point is immigration, where it’s widely agreed that the status quo on immigration policy isn’t working. Many economists argue that comprehensive immigration reform, done right, would help boost overall job and wage growth.

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