Americans: Economic Issues Country’s Top Problem Today

by Frank Newport

Iraq receives second-highest percentage of mentions

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans' satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States remains quite low, at 24%, essentially unchanged over the past nine months. Americans are most likely to mention aspects of the economy as the country's most important problem, followed by the war in Iraq. Top-of-mind concern about the economy has risen slightly this month, and is now as high as it has been in about a year and a half.

Satisfaction

Only about a quarter of Americans are satisfied "with the way things are going in the United States at this time," a percentage that has held remarkably constant every month since May of this year.

The average satisfaction level across all of 2007 was 28%. Satisfaction was slightly higher in the first four months of last year, but fell in May and, with some month-to-month changes, has remained at an average of 25% since that time. In short, there has been little lasting change in Americans' attitudes about the state of affairs in this country over the past nine months.

By point of reference, the lowest reading on this satisfaction measure since Gallup began using it in 1979 has been 12% in July of that year, followed by 14% in June 1992. The low point for George W. Bush's administration was 20%, recorded in November of last year. The highest satisfaction level Gallup has recorded since 1979 was 71% in February 1999.

There continue to be big differences in this satisfaction measure according to political party: Republicans remain significantly more satisfied than Democrats.

Half of Republicans are satisfied, but only small percentages of independents and Democrats agree.

Most Important Problem

What's behind these low levels of satisfaction?

One possible answer is to look at the responses to Gallup's January reading of the question: "What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?" (For the complete trend, please see the end of this report.)

Almost 4 out of 10 Americans now mention some aspect of the economy as the most important problem, the highest since May 2006. The most frequently occurring response in this broad category is simply "the economy" or some general variant thereof, followed by smaller percentages of respondents who mention fuel prices, unemployment/jobs, and other economic issues.

Still, the percentage mentioning the economy is relatively low by historical standards. As recently as May 2003, over half -- 52% -- of Americans said that some aspect of the economy was the most important problem. Going back further in time, in March 1991, 73% of Americans said some aspect of the economy was the nation's top problem.

The most frequently cited non-economic problem is Iraq, with 25% of Americans mentioning it in January. Roughly the same percentage mentioned Iraq in December and November, but in general, these percentages are slightly lower than readings earlier in 2007.

More generally, the percentage of Americans who have viewed Iraq as the nation's top problem since the war began in March 2003 has ranged from 5% in August 2003 to 38% in February of last year. By way of comparison, however, the percentage mentioning the Vietnam War was as high as 55% in January 1967.

Other problems Americans mention include:

  • Healthcare, mentioned by 13%
  • Immigration (11%)
  • Dissatisfaction with government (8%)

Other than the broad trends mentioned above relating to the economy and Iraq, there have not been any sharp changes over the last several months in the problems Americans think are the nation's toughest. Interestingly, despite the rising price of gas, the subprime mortgage and housing crisis, and the drop in the stock market, there has been no sharp increase in the percentage of Americans mentioning any of these specifically as the country's top problem.

Survey Methods

These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected sample of 1,023 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Jan. 4-6, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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