The verdict was most downbeat, though, on the bottom line. Asked which nation now has the world’s strongest economy, just 20 percent picked the United States. More than twice as many (47 percent) picked China. Eleven percent chose Japan. White working-class voters—the group that turned most sharply against the Democrats in November—were the most pessimistic: Just one in seven of them placed the U.S. atop the list; half named China. But the pessimism was widespread. Almost half of both college-educated whites and minority adults also tabbed China as No. 1. Americans who consider themselves politically independent were especially downbeat (53 percent went with China), but both Republicans and Democrats were also twice as likely to name China as the U.S.
Few economists would second that judgment. China this year became the world’s second-largest economy, but the U.S. gross domestic product remains more than two and a half times bigger than China’s, according to the International Monetary Fund. On a per capita basis, the advantage is nearly 11-to-1. China’s economy has grown much faster than the U.S. for years, however, and Beijing has amassed an enormous surplus in its international accounts while accumulating huge amounts of U.S. government debt.
Follow-up interviews suggest that Americans have such trends in mind when they cite China as the top economy. “They obviously are lending the United States a lot of money,” said Kim Lomas, a kindergarten teacher in Naples, Fla. “And they seem to be exporting a lot to our country. It seems like everything I pick up says ‘Made in China’ on it.” Scherer worries about China’s edge in building things: “They’re catching up to the U.S. as far as manufacturing,” he says. “And I just see that trend continuing.” Rigby frets about America’s reliance on China to purchase its government debt. “China will one day knock on the White House door and ask us to pay up or take over,” she says.
Anxiety about the nation’s immediate economic troubles undoubtedly colors this comparison. Yet when prompted to look decades into the future, those polled were only somewhat more optimistic about America’s position. Asked which nation will have the strongest economy in 20 years, 34 percent picked the United States, compared with 37 percent who chose China and 6 percent who named Japan. (The rest divided among other options or said they didn’t know.) About one-fifth of Americans who say that the U.S. today isn’t the world’s strongest economy expect it to regain world leadership down the road. But in all, nearly two-thirds don’t expect America to recapture the pole position in the economic race for the foreseeable future, an advantage that the nation took for granted in the first decades after World War II.
Two other findings underscored that apprehension. An imposing 58 percent of respondents agreed that “it is inevitable that Americans’ incomes will grow more slowly” in the future than in the past “because American workers are now competing with millions of lower-paid workers around the world.” Only 37 percent said that correct policies could reverse those trends. And just one-fourth of those polled said they believed that today’s children will have more opportunity to get ahead than they themselves did when they were young; a 39 percent plurality said they expected America’s young people to have less opportunity. (The rest expected youngsters to have the same opportunities or said they didn’t know.) On both questions, white respondents (including those with college educations) were more pessimistic than minorities.
A SHIFT AWAY FROM MANUFACTURING
Central to Americans’ sense of economic precariousness, the poll suggests, are intertwined concerns about the rise of global economic integration and the decline of U.S. manufacturing. Near the root of the unease for many of those polled is the worry that the United States no longer makes enough stuff.
Manufacturing figured only in the middle ranks when poll respondents projected which industries they believe will be “extremely important” in generating domestic economic growth over the next five to 10 years. Energy (47 percent) and health care (42 percent) led the list, followed by agriculture and information technology (36 percent each), manufacturing (33 percent), biotechnology (32 percent), and an assortment of other sectors.
But the poll also revealed clear anxiety about the decades-long employment shift away from manufacturing to service jobs. Asked if the nation should allow that trend to continue without taking steps to reverse it, just one-third said yes; three-fifths said they wanted action.
Those uneasy about the erosion of manufacturing employment included Matt Hemmis, sales director for a resort company in Orlando, Fla. He worries that America’s most attractive export now appears to be entertainment. “We have become a service nation instead of a working nation,” he said. “The only thing we have that spreads around the world is our music and our culture. But can we survive as a nation of culture? We have no mass production in our country. You can barely find cars or clothes made in this country anymore.”