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Special Briefing: The Top Five Challenges Obama Faces

Special Briefing: The Top Five Challenges Obama Faces

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the winner of Tuesday's presidential election, Barack Obama may have celebrated a hard-won victory last night, but the president must now turn his attention to solving the formidable problems facing the nation. According to an October Gallup poll, "the economy in general" ranks no. 1 on Gallup's "most important problem" list. The other top issues, in order of how frequently Americans mention them, are unemployment, the federal budget deficit, dissatisfaction with government, and healthcare. While none of these issues will likely be easy to fix, Gallup data provide U.S. leaders with insights on the public's views on each issue.

What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today? [OPEN-ENDED]

The Economy in General

While Gallup's Economic Confidence Index currently stands at its highest weekly point since 2008, the overall value of the index (-10) is still not positive on an absolute basis, indicating that more Americans remain negative than positive on the current status and the future direction of the economy. There is no doubt that much of Obama's second presidential term will be spent finding ways to encourage economic growth, including creating jobs -- an issue addressed below.

Of several economic concerns rated in a late 2011 Gallup poll, Americans are most eager to see Washington enact policies that will grow and expand the economy -- 82% say it is extremely or very important that the federal government do this. Secondly, in terms of addressing economic fairness, by 70% to 46%, more Americans say it is important to increase equality of opportunity for Americans to get ahead than to directly reduce the income gap between the rich and poor.

Furthermore, slightly more than half (52%) believe that the fact that some individuals in the United States are rich while others are poor is an "acceptable part of our economic system." This is not to say that a certain economic policy presents a trade-off -- more income equality or more overall growth -- but in the event such a choice must be made, more Americans would prefer to focus on growth.

The U.S. housing market is a vital part of the national economy and continues to struggle. Many Americans own a home they cannot afford and hence face foreclosure, while other homeowners are threatened by declining home values that accompany large-scale foreclosures. A January poll found that 58% of Americans believe it would be better for the economy if the federal government acts to help stem further foreclosures, while 34% say it would be better if the government does not take such action.

Meanwhile, a majority of investors believe that historically low interest rates help the nation's economy rather than hurt investors and savers, 66% to 28%. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has aggressively pursued policies to keep interest rates low in an effort to promote economic recovery. Bernanke's term ends in January 2014 (he was reappointed by Obama to a second term in 2009), and the president will have an opportunity to keep him on board or appoint a chairman who is less attuned with this policy. Americans, by and large, are not convinced Bernanke is doing the best thing for the economy: even as investors generally approve of this Bernanke policy, many Americans are less trusting of the chairman -- an April survey found that 39% of Americans trusted Bernanke a great deal or a fair amount to do or recommend the right thing for the economy. Whatever the president's choice, most investors believe that the economy is better served by keeping interest rates low.


Asked to name the most important thing that could be done to improve the U.S. economy, 28% of Americans say creating more or better jobs. Reducing the unemployment rate will be a major concern over the next four years.

One in four Americans said the best way to create more jobs in the U.S. is to keep manufacturing in this country and stop sending work overseas when asked an open-ended question on creating jobs in March 2011. Other top ideas include creating jobs by increasing infrastructure work (13%), lower taxes (12%), doing more to help small business (11%), and reducing government regulation/involvement (10%).

Americans' Prescriptions for Increasing U.S. Jobs -- Top Five

President Obama could also argue that his victory was at least partially the result of his jobs plan, and thus he has something of a policy mandate in this area. A July Gallup poll found that 64% of Americans said they understood what Obama would do to create jobs if elected president and a similar 60% understood what defeated opponent Mitt Romney would do. In a separate question, they said "creating good jobs" is the no. 1 priority for the next president from a list of 12 issues tested in a July 19-22 USA Today/Gallup poll. Ninety-two percent considered it extremely or very important, suggesting many voters formed their presidential preference on this issue alone.

Federal Budget Deficit

Reining in the federal budget deficit will be another important item on the president's to-do list. In March of this year, 81% of the country said federal spending and the deficit worried them "a great deal" or "a fair amount."

This issue actually will come to the forefront even before the next presidential term begins. At the end of 2012, the government will enact a series of spending cuts in accordance with the Budget Control Act of 2011. Additionally, temporary tax cuts such as the payroll tax cuts will lapse, meaning taxes will increase. This event has come to be known as the "Fiscal Cliff." While Gallup has not polled about this specific event, some of the cuts -- including to defense and Medicare -- appear unpopular with most Americans. Fifty-one percent oppose cutting defense spending, according to a 2011 poll, while 56% would oppose changes to Social Security and Medicare programs in order to reduce the cost of those programs.

On the other side of the ledger, Americans seem open to the idea of increasing government revenue via higher taxes -- depending on whose taxes are increased. Sixty percent of Americans thought the outgoing 112th Congress should have passed the so-called "Buffett Rule" championed by Obama, which would mandate a minimum tax rate of 30% for households earning an income $1 million or more; 37% of the public opposed such a measure. Meanwhile, many taxpayers are already resigned to the possibility of higher taxes: an April poll found 53% of Americans expecting their taxes to increase over the next year.

Dissatisfaction With Government

Americans' negative opinions of government come through in a number of additional measures. Congressional job approval is now at 21%, low on any absolute scale, although up from where it has been in recent months. Twenty-three percent of Americans have a positive opinion of the "federal government," while 60% have a negative opinion.

One concern of most Americans is that the government is trying to do too much. Recent polling shows that 54% of Americans believe the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, while 39% say the government should try to do more to solve the nation's problems.

Trend: Is Government Doing Too Much or Does It Need to Do More?

In 2011, Americans estimated that a mean of 50.6 cents of each dollar that goes to the federal government is wasted. This represented a slight increase from 2009 (49.7 cents) and a noticeable uptick from 2001 (45.9).

A major issue for any president in today's highly polarized environment is attempting to work with Congress to enact legislation and to get things done. Given that the next Congress will again be divided between a Republican House of Representatives and a Democratic Senate, passing legislation will require bills to have support on both sides of the aisle. Americans clearly would like to see political leaders compromise; 51% say it is more important for political actors to compromise than to stick to their beliefs (28%), according to a 2011 poll.


Obama's re-election means any repeal of the 2010 healthcare law is unlikely. Yet the law remains controversial. Polling earlier this year found Americans divided -- 47% supporting a repeal of the law, and 44% opposed. The Supreme Court's June 2012 decision finding the law constitutional also evenly divided the country, with 46% agreeing with the court and 46% disagreeing.

However, as Republicans are the majority party in the House, they may attempt to find ways to change or modify the law. Granted, these efforts will probably be rebuffed by the Democratic Senate or an Obama veto, but with any hypothetical changes, Congress may want to be selective about which portions of the law it tries to invalidate. Many of the provisions of the law have not been implemented, but those that have may prove more popular than policymakers realize. Since the passage of the law, Americans' confidence in the U.S. medical system has increased, with 41% expressing a great deal or quite a lot of confidence, according to the most recent poll. One in four (25%) expressed very little or no confidence.


Obama faces many challenges in his next term -- especially finding ways to grow the economy and create jobs. It's certain that the president has more than a few ideas as to how to best resolve these concerns, but it is also important that he understands what ideas most Americans think would work and what ideas would not.

Track every angle of the presidential race on's Election 2012 page.

Survey Methods

Gallup surveys 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, every day and also conducts additional surveys. In most cases, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±2 to ±4 percentage points. For detailed survey methods on any results reported here, please visit the original story.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample includes a minimum quota of 400 cell phone respondents and 600 landline respondents per 1,000 national adults, with additional minimum quotas among landline respondents by region. Landline telephone numbers are chosen at random among listed telephone numbers. Cell phone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.

Samples are weighted by gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, adults in the household, and phone status (cell phone only/landline only/both, cell phone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2011 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older non-institutionalized population living in U.S. telephone households. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting and sample design.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit

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