Americans remain significantly less satisfied with a number of aspects of U.S. life than they have been in the past. As my colleague Jeff Jones summarized in his recent report, "Satisfaction at the start of 2022 in a variety of areas is about as bad as it's been in two decades of Gallup measurement."
At the same time, satisfaction varies widely across the areas measured. These relative differences in satisfaction can, at least in theory, provide guidance for the nation's elected officials as they make decisions on how to govern the nation. One can assume that Americans want their elected officials to focus their attention on the issues on which they (the Americans) are least satisfied.
But there is more to it than that. In some instances, the average American may feel that certain issues are not ones on which the government is the appropriate agent of change -- regardless of Americans' dissatisfaction. And in other instances, Americans may be relatively satisfied with an issue but feel that the government should keep its foot on the gas and continue to make that issue a priority going forward.
Americans' Satisfaction and Priorities for Government on 11 Issues
As an exercise, I looked at our recent Gallup data on satisfaction in conjunction with a different set of recent results from Pew Research that measured Americans' priorities for the president and Congress. Not all the issues in the Gallup satisfaction list are included in the Pew list, and the wording of the issues is different between the sets of measures. But the juxtaposition gives us interesting insights into how Americans' dissatisfaction with a particular aspect of life may or may not line up with their interest in that aspect being a priority for their elected officials.
The two organizations asked about 11 issues using wording that is close enough to allow for comparison. I normalized the satisfaction lists and priority lists against their own average to account for the different scales involved, and then looked at the issues that were above and below average in satisfaction (Gallup data) and in priority (Pew data). We end up with four categories -- those above average on both lists, those below average on both lists, those above average on satisfaction but below average on priority, and those below average on satisfaction but above average on priority.
Two of these four categories are essentially what we would expect -- issues on which the public is dissatisfied and wants them to be prioritized by the federal government, and those issues on which the public is satisfied and assigns them a lower priority as a result.
Issues With Below-Average Satisfaction and Above-Average Priority for Government
The first of these groups is probably the most important -- issues on which the public has a below-average satisfaction rating and to which the public assigns an above-average priority for Congress and the president. There are four such aspects of American life that fit these criteria:
- reducing crime
- improving the quality of public education
- improving the nation's economy
- making healthcare affordable
The importance of these issues is not surprising, given their fundamental status as core components of a functioning society. One cannot go wrong, in essence, by emphasizing that the government needs to focus heavily on crime, education, the economy and healthcare. Candidates for federal office should take note.
Issues With Above-Average Satisfaction and Below-Average Priority for Government
The second category is the mirror opposite of the above -- those aspects of American life with above-average satisfaction ratings and concomitantly ones to which Americans assign below-average priority. There are two such issues:
- military strength/preparedness
- the environment
One surprise here is the presence of the environment in this category at a time when this aspect of life has become such a major focus of journalistic, pundit and expert attention, including the oft-quoted assumption that the environment and climate change represent an existential threat to humankind's survival. (Gallup's satisfaction wording on this issue was "the quality of the environment," while Pew's wording focused more directly on "global climate change.")
The major factor here, I think, is the significant lack of partisan consensus no matter how the issue is worded. Republicans are much more satisfied than Democrats with the quality of the environment, so much so that the overall average satisfaction level comes in above average. Republicans are also hugely less likely than Democrats in the Pew data to assign global climate change a top priority, resulting in its below-average overall priority rating. These are not new findings, given prior Gallup research showing the major partisan divide on environment and climate change. But the lack of an overall clear consensus of dissatisfaction with the environment and the lack of assignment of a high priority to the issue reinforce the difficulty elected officials have in coming to grips with the issue.
Less Logical Categories of Satisfaction and Priority
The remaining two categories of satisfaction and priority are somewhat less logical than the two reviewed above. The first of these is the group of issues that have below-average satisfaction ratings but are also assigned below-average priority ratings. In this situation, the public either thinks the issues are not ones that can be remedied by government action, or perhaps ones on which the public thinks the government is not the appropriate agent of change. The three issues in this category are:
- poverty and homelessness
- the level of immigration into this country
- the state of race relations
The presence of the state of race relations in this category again reflects a partisan gap. Republicans are somewhat more likely to be satisfied with this issue than are Democrats in Gallup's data, although the issue has relatively low levels of satisfaction among both partisan groups. At the same time, Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to assign race issues a top priority in the Pew data, bringing down the resulting average. In fact, race is near the bottom of the list of priority rankings across all issues measured by Pew.
Attitudes toward immigration are also highly partisan, in the opposite direction. Republicans are less satisfied with immigration than any of the other issues tested on the Gallup list, much less so than Democrats, and that brings the overall satisfaction rating to just below average. Similarly, the Pew data show that immigration is given a much higher priority rating by Republicans than by Democrats, although immigration still ends up just below the average priority ratings across all issues. Again, these findings of major partisan differences line up with Gallup's ongoing research on attitudes toward immigration.
The fourth category in this analysis represents those aspects of American life with above-average satisfaction levels and above-average priority ratings. The two issues in this category are:
- security from terrorism
- Social Security and Medicare
Americans appear to be relatively satisfied with these issues but apparently don't feel comfortable saying they should therefore receive a lower priority from government. Americans want the president and Congress to keep pressing forward on both.
There are numerous ways to assess what the American public wants their federal government to do. These include Gallup's monthly updates on what the public considers to be the most important problem facing the nation. The focus of this review has been consideration of the public's relative dissatisfaction with various aspects of American life coupled with the priority they give each in terms of future actions by the president and Congress.
Some of the results of the current analyses are in line with conventional wisdom. Americans clearly are dissatisfied with and want their government to do more in relation to crime, education, healthcare and the economy. Additionally, although the public appears fairly satisfied with security from terrorism and the status of entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, they want the government to maintain these issues as top priorities.
Other possible focus points for the federal government are more complicated. These include hot-button issues such as race relations, the environment and immigration. Americans' intense partisan differences raise their heads in these contexts, presenting a less clear way forward for elected officials desirous of following the public's direction.