After a campaign season of unprecedented expense and duration, taming the federal deficit and avoiding the fiscal cliff top the public’s To Do list for President Obama and Congress, the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll has found.
But in contrast to Washington’s nearly exclusive focus on the budgetary standoff, Americans express almost equal worry about an array of other economic challenges, including the availability of jobs, the quality of education, and the cost of college and health care. And even as Americans urge policymakers to reach a budget deal, the poll found that most rank progress on other fronts, such as improving education and promoting manufacturing, above stabilizing the federal government’s finances as a key to long-term economic renewal.
In the election’s aftermath, the survey finds a modest but measurable uptick in support for Obama and in optimism about the nation’s direction. And most Americans say they want the president and congressional Republicans to compromise “to get more done,” even if that means accepting some policies that the respondents don’t necessarily agree with.
Yet the poll shows that anxiety about the economy’s trajectory, and skepticism that the two sides will in fact reach agreement, remain entrenched. On many issues, so do the same partisan, ideological, and racial divides that characterized last month’s election. When it comes to a number of the key choices, voters who supported Obama and those who backed Republican Mitt Romney express almost diametrical priorities. For all the concern about the deficit, few solutions other than raising taxes on the rich generate much enthusiasm in the survey. And whites, who gave Romney near-record support for a White House challenger, display throughout the poll a strikingly pessimistic streak about the nation’s direction and Obama’s likely effect on it.
Taken together, these results suggest that the election hasn’t remotely cleared away all of the obstacles that made for a rocky two years between Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill. But it may have provided a narrow pathway toward progress for both sides. Above all, the survey shows how great a challenge Washington faces in forging responses to our most pressing problems that can command, much less sustain, support from more than a narrow and fleeting majority of the American people.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The latest Heartland Monitor survey, supervised by Ed Reilly and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Consulting’s Strategic Communications practice, is the 15th in a series exploring how Americans are navigating the changing economy. This poll explores the public’s economic priorities and concerns in the postelection period—as well as attitudes about competing approaches for responding to those problems. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults from Nov. 25-Dec. 1 on landline and cell phones and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Like the presidential election itself, the results show the country closely, but sharply, split on a wide assortment of assessments and choices.
One telling series of questions asked respondents to rank on a scale from zero to 10 what they consider the highest priorities for “elected officials in Washington” to address; and, separately, to list the long-term steps that “would do the most to improve the country over … the next 10 to 20 years.” Those questions produced subtle and revealing differences, not only within each list but also between the two.
On the immediate assignment list for Washington, dealing with the budget deficit and national debt finished first, drawing an average score of 8.4 on that zero-to-10 scale of importance. But five other issues clustered close behind it: “the status of Social Security and Medicare” (at an average of 8.2); the availability of good-paying jobs (8.1); the education system, including its cost (at 8.0); the cost of health care and the tax system (both at 7.9).
These priorities diverge substantially across racial and partisan lines. For whites, dealing with the deficit ranks as the clear first priority, followed by Social Security and Medicare, and then the availability of good jobs. For minorities, the top priority is the education system (which ranked only sixth among whites), followed by the entitlement programs, jobs, and the cost of health care.
Similarly, poll respondents who said they voted for Romney identify reducing the deficit, by far, as their highest priority, followed by national defense and the war on terrorism. Among Obama voters, debt ranked fifth and terrorism was 12th. Their top priorities are education, jobs, health care costs, and the entitlement programs.
Interviews with poll respondents underscored the distance between these perspectives. “We need to invest in our future even if it costs us a buck now—if it means maintaining deficits for a while,” says Thomas Segel, a retired tile-setter from Gainesville, Mo., in a comment typical of Obama’s supporters.