The FINANCIAL — Americans named dissatisfaction with government as the most important problem facing the nation in 2017, the third time in the past four years that government has been at the top of the list. The second most frequently mentioned problem in 2017 was healthcare, followed by race relations, immigration, the need to unify the country, and the economy.
These results are based on the average of 12 monthly surveys conducted in 2017 in which Americans were asked to name the most important problem “facing this country today.”
The 20% of Americans citing government as the top problem this year is slightly higher than the 13% to 18% who mentioned it in each of the past three years, but is the same as in 2013. Government topped the most important problem list in 2014 and 2015, and was second to the economy in 2013 and 2016, according to Gallup.
Dissatisfaction with government has appeared on the “top problem” list as far back as 1954, when 19% named it as the most important problem. Mentions of government as the top problem have been high at other periods over the past several decades, including:
in 1973 and 1974 during the Watergate scandal
in 1996 in the aftermath of the late 1995/early 1996 government shutdown
at the time of the government shutdown in 2013 (reaching the all-time high of 33% mentioning government in a single poll in October of that year)
The “government” category is quite general, encompassing negative references to President Donald Trump, Congress, partisan gridlock and more general manifestations of disapproval of the way the government system works.
The 20% of Americans mentioning government at the top of the list this year is relatively low compared with significantly higher numbers who have coalesced around other top problems since 2001.
The economy was clearly the dominant problem from 2008 through 2012, averaging as high as 40% in 2009.
The Iraq War was viewed as the No. 1 problem from 2004 to 2007, averaging 33% in 2007.
In the early 2000s, the top problems were the economy (27% in 2003) and terrorism (24% in 2002).
While Government Tops the List in 2017, Other Issues Grabbed Attention Too
Mentions of healthcare as the top problem facing the nation rose this year after the U.S. House attempted to repeal Obamacare in May and the Senate tried the same in July and August. Mentions of race relations were higher in the three months after the August death of a bystander in Charlottesville, Virginia, during protests surrounding the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Immigration was higher on the list in the early months of the year as Trump took office and emphasized his immigration reform proposals.
Other issues cited by an average of at least 4% of Americans this year included unemployment/jobs, terrorism, a decline in ethics and morality, and the situation with North Korea.
Tax Reform Not Named by Many as Top Problem
The most important problem question measures issues that are top of mind at the moment of the interview. Additional Gallup research shows that there are other policy changes that Americans are willing to support and that don’t appear high on the open-ended list. For example, Gallup research last year showed that Americans responded very positively to the idea of spending up to a trillion dollars on infrastructure, yet very few Americans mentioned infrastructure as the most important problem either last year or this year. Similarly, few spontaneously mentioned education or terrorism as the top problems facing the nation, although both were important priorities when asked about in other ways.
In a similar scenario, few Americans mentioned taxes as the most important problem facing the nation — 2% across the 12 surveys conducted in 2017 — even in the midst of highly visible efforts on the part of Republican leaders in Congress to get a sweeping tax bill passed as the year came to a close. There is other evidence of dissatisfaction with taxes, and about half of Americans say the amount they pay in taxes is too high. This suggests that — like other issues — the absence of taxes on the most important problem list doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t an underlying priority.
On the other hand, even though one of the stated goals of tax reform is to stimulate economic growth, the economy as the nation’s top problem has declined significantly in Americans’ minds. Seven percent named the economy in general as the nation’s top problem in 2017, and 21% mentioned any aspect of the economy as the top problem, the lowest yearly average for this net economic measure since Gallup began monthly tracking of the most important problem question in 2001.
Other measures confirm that Americans perceive a more positive economic climate today, indicating that the need to stimulate the economy is apparently not the public’s highest priority. (The majority of Americans at this point indicate they are opposed to the new tax bill.)
Americans’ top concerns on the most important problem list in 2017 focused more on how government operates than on any particular domestic or international policy issue. Only about one in five mention any aspect of the economy as the top problem, and there is no one specific policy issue that pops up as a dominant concern.
Rather, Americans appear to be most worried about the way in which their government operates and about the people who occupy positions of leadership in the U.S. — including the 20% who mention the government per se, and another 7% who mention the need to unify the country. Coupled with that are smaller, but significant, percentages of Americans who are concerned about the lack of ethics and decline of morality, and the lack of respect Americans have for one another.
The low ranking of the economy as the top problem facing the nation mirrors positive readings on Gallup’s U.S. Economic Confidence Index, likely a response to the low unemployment rate and the booming stock market. And although Republican leadership in 2017 has focused variously on immigration, healthcare and taxes as major issues needing legislative remedies, none of these ended up at the top of the list of the nation’s top problems this year.
If there is one message arising from the assessment of Americans’ views of the nation’s top problems in 2017, it is that government leaders need to focus on themselves and figure out ways to improve the negative manner in which they are viewed by the public, as well as the negative views of the ways they go about their business.