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Record-Low 12% Cite Economic Issues as Top U.S. Problem

Record-Low 12% Cite Economic Issues as Top U.S. Problem

Story Highlights

  • Prior low mentioning economic issues was 13% in May 1999
  • Dissatisfaction with government, at 29%, tops the problem list
  • 37% are satisfied with the way things are going, little changed

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A record-low 12% of Americans currently cite some aspect of the economy as the most important problem facing the U.S., down from 17% last month and one percentage point below the previous low of 13% recorded in May 1999. Mentions of the economy as the top problem reached 86% in February 2009, the highest in recent decades.

Line graph showing trend since 1991 for mentions of economic issues as most important problem, currently record-low 12%.

This latest update is from interviewing conducted Sept. 4-12. Gallup has been asking the classic "most important problem" question since 1939 but did not begin giving a net score for all references to economic issues -- including the economy in general, unemployment and inflation -- until 1991.

The low number of mentions of economic issues as the nation's most important problem mirrors Americans' generally positive attitudes on other economic indicators. In the current September survey, 55% of Americans say the economy is getting better, among the highest proportions saying this since 2004. A near-record-high 64% say now is a good time to find a quality job; workers remain upbeat about their job security; and employee engagement is at record highs.

As the economy has been receding in Americans' minds as the top problem facing the nation, issues relating to the way the country is being governed have become more prevalent. This month, 29% of Americans cite concerns about government, approaching the all-time high of 33% in October 2013 -- when the U.S. government shut down after Congress failed to agree on a spending bill. Other specific issues rounding out the top five "most important problem" categories this month include immigration, race issues, the need to unify the country and healthcare.

Most Important Problem Facing the United States
Top mentions
Dissatisfaction with government/Poor leadership 29
Immigration/Illegal immigrants 12
Race relations/Racism 9
Need to unify the country 7
Healthcare 5
Lack of respect for each other 4
Poverty/Hunger/Homelessness 4
GALLUP, Sept. 4-12, 2018

There is agreement across party lines that government is the nation's top problem. The 38% of Democrats and 28% of Republicans mentioning it puts it at the top of both partisan groups' lists this month. Dissatisfaction with government is, however, a broad category encompassing a number of different specifics. While Democrats who mention government-related issues are likely to mention their displeasure with President Donald Trump, Republicans are more likely to mention Democrats, liberals and other issues relating to government.

Satisfaction With Way Things Are Going Remains Stable, at 37%

Americans' satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. -- at 37% in September -- has remained generally stable over the past five months. Although low on an absolute basis, this month's 37% matches the average 37% satisfaction level since Gallup began measuring it in 1979. The low point of 7% was recorded in October 2008, while the high of 71% was measured in February 1999.

Line graph showing trend since 1979 for satisfaction with way things are going in U.S., currently 37%.

The 1999 high point was recorded shortly after the U.S. Senate voted to acquit President Bill Clinton on articles of impeachment, a decision the public supported. But it also reflected the strong economy at that time. Throughout the 1998 to 2000 period, as the economy prospered during the dot-com boom and as Americans' mentions of the economy as the top problem remained low, satisfaction levels were consistently in the 50% and 60% range. That contrasts sharply with the much lower 37% satisfaction reading now -- even though the economy appears to be in a similarly positive position.

The explanation for today's lower satisfaction levels may well lie with Americans' concerns over the way the nation is being governed. It may also reflect today's rigid political polarization, which makes it difficult for Democrats to say they are satisfied when a Republican president is in the White House. Currently, 12% of Democrats are satisfied, contrasting with the 68% among Republicans.

Similar gaps (with those from the president's party having higher satisfaction) were seen throughout Barack Obama's and George W. Bush's presidencies, spanning the years from 2001 through 2016. By contrast, in the 1990s, coinciding with Clinton's presidency, there were much smaller gaps between Democrats' and Republicans' satisfaction levels.

Line graph showing trend since 1993 for satisfaction with way things are going in U.S. for Democrats and Republicans.

Bottom Line

Although Americans clearly recognize today's improved economic situation, as evidenced by a record-low percentage who say the economy is the nation's top problem, their satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. remains much lower than at a previous time of economic prosperity during the dot-com boom. The recent history of highly polarized expressions of satisfaction, in which the political group not allied with the president pulls down the overall average, suggests it may be difficult for satisfaction to return to the majority levels seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Republicans are much more positive than Democrats are about Trump, and they are much more likely to say they are satisfied with the way things are going in the country. However, like Democrats, Republicans currently identify some aspect of the way the nation is being governed as the top problem facing the nation. This is the case even though the GOP controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, but it stands as testimony to the broad nature of the public's displeasure with their representatives in Washington.

With the midterm elections approaching, Democrats' low levels of satisfaction with the way things are going, and their dissatisfaction with the way the nation is being governed, certainly stand as motivating factors for them to turn out and attempt to change representation in Congress. Republicans' high levels of satisfaction with the way things are going, however, may in turn motivate them to vote in order to keep the status quo in place.

View complete question responses and trends.

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