Economy Tops Problem List; Terrorism Simmers

by Darren K. Carlson, Government and Politics Editor

Like last year's congressional midterm elections, next year's presidential election could be dominated by the issues of the economy and national security or terrorism. In 2002, terrorism appeared to win out as Republicans were able to parlay their strength on this issue to gain congressional seats despite a sour economy. However, Gallup's latest update on the most important problem facing the country shows the economy as a clear winner these days. Forty-five percent of Americans mentioned some aspect of the economy as the nation's No. 1 problem in a Sept. 8-10 Gallup Poll*. The vast majority of these comments dealt with the economy in a general sense (26%) or more specific concerns about jobs and unemployment (15%).

Though the economy and unemployment have been fixtures at the top of the list since May, terrorism isn't absent from the nation's consciousness. Twelve percent of Americans currently mention terrorism as the top problem, while concerns about war and the situation in Iraq are mentioned by 11%, and national security by 5%. But overall, the public is nearly twice as likely to mention economic concerns over those related to terrorism or other external threats to the United States.

Other issues of concern to Americans include ethical and moral decline (which almost always appears among the top responses) and dissatisfaction with government and government leaders.

Is Concern About War on the Rise?

Reports of guerrilla-style combat and American casualties in Iraq may be creating renewed concern about war for the American public. Shortly before the war began in March, fear of war/the situation in Iraq was tied with the economy as the problems named most frequently by Americans, with 29% mentioning each. Mentions of war slipped to 16% in April as the United States made advances in Iraq, and then into single digits after President Bush declared an end to formal fighting in May. The percentage mentioning war as a problem had dwindled to 5% in August. But the most recent survey shows a six-percentage-point increase to 11%, possibly because of the president's admission about the difficulty of rebuilding Iraq and his request for an additional $87 billion from Congress to help in the reconstruction effort.

Bottom Line

The economy remains the No. 1 concern of the American public, with unemployment playing a large part in that concern. However, concern over issues such as terrorism and fear of war seem to be an ever-present aspect of American life in the post-9/11 world. While it remains to be seen whether the recent rise in concern about war and Iraq is a temporary blip or the beginning of a sustained trend, the percentage mentioning these concerns has increased significantly since August.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,025 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-10, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

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