The Biden-Harris transition website lists four priorities for the forthcoming administration: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.
How well do these priorities sync with U.S. public opinion? One way to answer that question is to use Gallup's monthly update on Americans' views of the most important problem facing the country as a surrogate measure of the public's priorities. As my Gallup colleague Lydia Saad reviewed this week, the top five problems facing the country today, from Americans' viewpoint, are: COVID-19, poor government/poor government leadership, race relations/racism, the economy in general and the need to unify the country.
The Biden-Harris transition priorities coincide with three of these: COVID, race relations and the economy. The public does not mention climate change with any significant frequency as the nation's top problem. And, the Biden-Harris team does not mention efforts to fix the way government operates or unifying the country, although we assume this is an underlying theme for the team, given Joe Biden's assertions that it is "time to heal" the country and his vow "not to divide, but to unify" once he is president.
Of Biden's "big four" priorities, I think it is fair to say that tackling COVID-19 accrues the least controversy from the public's perspective. It has been at or near the top of Americans' most important problem list since April and clearly is a tentacular issue that essentially affects everyone.
There is less public agreement on the degree to which the government should intervene in efforts to tackle climate change. Less than half of Americans say they worry a great deal about climate change, and less than half say global warming will pose a serious threat in their lifetime. At the same time, the public supports a number of individual initiatives that are considered to be ways to mitigate climate change, such as the prioritization of renewable energy over fossil fuels.
Americans agree that racial equity is an important issue, but there are wide differences in public opinion on the most efficacious way to approach it. As I summarized in a recent review, "A majority of Americans agree with the underlying conclusion that racial inequities in U.S. society need to be addressed. … But we find much less agreement with a number of the specific proposed remedies that would produce the most significant changes in the situation."
That leaves us the economy, which has certainly been a major focus for almost all incoming presidential administrations throughout history. The economy is not at the very top of the list when Americans are asked to name the most important problem facing the nation, but I think that's because it is essentially drowned out in many Americans' minds by the focus on COVID, itself the root cause of the current parlous economic situation.
Just how bad are economic conditions from the perspective of the U.S. public? Americans are somewhat less negative about the economy than in April when the full extent of the pandemic was first becoming evident, but the majority of Americans continue to rate the economy as "poor" or "only fair," and the majority continue to say the economy is getting worse rather than getting better. These economic perceptions are much less positive than just before the pandemic, but still better than the low points reached during the 2007-2009 Great Recession.
President Donald Trump's approach to the economy centered on cutting taxes and cutting business regulations, although government spending for such things as defense, agricultural subsidies and pandemic relief soared during his administration. The Biden administration has proposed significantly more government intervention, with a specific focus on creating jobs, empowering unions, increasing taxes and supporting small businesses.
Biden-Harris Put a Big Focus on Creating More Jobs
Biden-Harris proposals relating to job creation include such things as "immediately put people to work by enlisting them to help fight the pandemic, including through a Public Health Jobs Corps," "mobilize American manufacturing and innovation to ensure that the future is made in America, and in all of America," "mobilize American ingenuity to build a modern infrastructure and an equitable, clean energy future," and "mobilize American talent and heart to build a 21st-century caregiving and education workforce."
My review of public opinion on the economy over the years suggests that Americans are, in general, positive about any effort to create jobs. As I summarized last year, "No one is going to criticize a politician for promising to create more jobs."
Previous Gallup research shows that creating new jobs is the top recommendation Americans come up with when asked what can be done to fix the economy. Plus, we have historically noted widespread approval for proposals to do such things as "provide tax incentives for companies to train workers to acquire new skills," "provide $5.5 billion in federal dollars for job-training programs that would create 1 million jobs for disadvantaged young Americans," and "spend more government money to encourage innovation and increase manufacturing jobs in the clean energy market." And, research from a few years ago showed that Americans were very positive about the perceived effectiveness of "providing new federal government programs designed to increase U.S. manufacturing jobs."
The importance of creating (or maintaining) jobs is underscored by Gallup data showing that the significant majority of Americans at this point say it is not a good time to find a quality job. That is a little improved from the nadir reached in April, but still way more negative than the readings on this measure prior to the pandemic. Plus, workers are more worried than at any time in the past seven years about the possibility of their being laid off.
Public Favorable Toward Unions
The Biden-Harris economic plans include a significant emphasis on increased union involvement in the workforce, including "passing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, providing public service and federal government workers with bargaining rights, and taking other steps to make it easier for workers to organize unions and collectively bargain."
The increased focus on unions fits well with Americans' views of unions in general. Gallup's latest update shows that about two-thirds of Americans approve of unions, even though relatively few are actually union members. Other questions show that support for more union activity is somewhat less positive, however. In 2018, Gallup found that 39% of Americans wanted the influence of unions to increase, while 26% wanted unions' influence to stay the same and 29% preferred unions have less influence. Pew Research, also in 2018, found that slightly more than half of Americans said the decreased number of workers who were union members was "mostly bad for working people," while 35% said it was mostly good and the rest had no opinion.
Helping Small Businesses a Plus
Other proposals in the Biden-Harris economic priorities list include an emphasis on helping small businesses "manage through the pandemic and recover, so that millions of entrepreneurs can get back on their feet and carry this economy forward" and providing a "comeback package for Main Street businesses and entrepreneurs."
This emphasis on small businesses fits well with U.S. public opinion, given that Americans have more confidence in small business than in any other institution Gallup tests. And the Wells Fargo/Gallup Small Business Index shows that small-business owners themselves are much less optimistic than they were before the pandemic, underscoring the degree to which they can use government help.
The Biden-Harris proposals include increasing the federal minimum wage to at least $15 an hour -- again in sync with U.S. public opinion. A recent update from Pew Research shows that two-thirds of Americans favor an increase to a $15 minimum wage.
The Biden-Harris plan also invokes "reversing some of Trump's tax cuts for corporations and imposing common-sense tax reforms that finally make sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share." Americans generally support the idea of having wealthy individuals and corporations pay more in taxes. Last year, I looked in depth at the fact that less than half of Americans approved of the 2017 tax cut law, and other polling shows that most Americans do not think they have benefited from the law. In our latest update, 62% of Americans say that upper-income people pay too little in taxes, and 69% say that corporations pay too little.
All presidents want to improve the domestic economy and attempt to use the government in one way or another to bring about that eventuality. Trump pushed through a reduction in federal taxes and reduced government regulations as his major initiatives for improving the economy. The Biden-Harris administration appears poised to attempt (pending congressional cooperation) to use the government to improve the economy by increasing spending on a wide variety of programs designed to create jobs, sustain employment and provide pandemic relief. Certainly, there will be political pushback at these efforts to increase government intervention and expenditures, particularly if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate. But we know that the public supported the initial pandemic stimulus plan passed earlier this year, and a New York Times/Siena College poll in October showed that over seven in 10 favor a new $2 trillion stimulus package. More generally, the American public overall appears to be in sync with most aspects of what the Biden-Harris team is proposing related to the economy, suggesting that the new administration will begin its economic efforts with relatively solid public backing.