The source of our woes?

Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

What's Wrong With the U.S. Now

Barry Ritholtz is a Bloomberg View columnist. He founded Ritholtz Wealth Management and was chief executive and director of equity research at FusionIQ, a quantitative research firm. He blogs at the Big Picture and is the author of “Bailout Nation: How Greed and Easy Money Corrupted Wall Street and Shook the World Economy.”
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The Gallup polling organization is in the business of taking the pulse of the American public. A new survey detects a surprising shift in perceptions. It points not just to the nation's sour mood and disappointment with the drawn-out recovery, but also to a sense that something different is now wrong with the U.S.

In 2014, four issues generated enough public concern over enough months for at least 10% of Americans, on average, to identify each of them as the nation's most important problem. Complaints about government leadership -- including President Barack Obama, the Republicans in Congress and general political conflict -- led the list, at 18%. This was closely followed by mentions of the economy in general (17%), unemployment or jobs (15%) and healthcare (10%).

This is quite notable for several reasons: One of the more significant observations is that for the first year since 2007, the economy wasn't the top issue.

This should come as no surprise to those who pay attention to economic data. Third-quarter gross domestic product checked in at a stunning 5 percent rate. Unemployment is at 5.8 percent, down from 10 percent in late 2009. The U.S. economy added 321,000 workers in November. Wages are ticking up, inflation is minimal and fuel prices have been cut in half. What is surprising is that the economy remains the second-biggest issue; given this run of good data, a more informed pool of survey respondents should have moved the economy much further down the list.

More intriguing is what was the top issue -- and for the first time ever: Government leadership.  Considering those records go back to when George Gallup founded the American Institute of Public Opinion in 1935, that’s quite the data point.

Gallup's poll found high levels of dissatisfaction with Obama, higher levels with Congress in general and even higher levels with the Republican-controlled Congress. Yet that is exactly what the American people have voted for.

Why in a post-election year, when we just threw da bums out, are people so dissatisfied with government? The answer lies in the revulsion at partisan extremism and a genuine desire among many Americans to see the sorts of things accomplished that only governments can do.

The media loves to portray politics as a horse race between competing ideologies. It's liberals versus conservatives, red state versus blue,  the loony left versus the rabid right, a cacophony fanned by Fox News and other slanted news outlets that is less reflective of America than many people believe. The reality is more subtle and nuanced than you might gather if you're a fan of the biased purveyors of entertainment masquerading as news.

America is much more purple than red or blue, more middle of the road than politically extreme. Consider the areas where we tend toward agreement:

-- Fifty-one percent of Americans believe marijuana should be legalized. That’s up from 12 percent in 1969.

-- Ninety-one percent of Americans support criminal background checks for all gun buyers. Fifty-nine percent want to ban semiautomatic assault weapons and 18 percent want to ban handguns.

-- Seventy percent favor infrastructure-repair programs for crumbling roads and bridges.

-- Fifty-five percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. Those numbers are only going to rise over time, as support among younger Americans is even higher -- eight in 10 young adults support gay marriage.

-- Stricter environmental-protection rules, especially for clean water and air, are supported by seven out of 10 people.

-- Americans overwhelmingly say abortion should be legal at least under some circumstances, especially in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother's life. (Seventy-eight percent of the public believe abortion should be legal under all or some circumstances; just 20 percent think it should be illegal in all circumstances. According to Time, those numbers are unchanged since 1975).

-- 90 percent of Americans admire people who got rich by working hard; yet a “resounding majority” is concerned about the widening inequality gap.

-- Almost 90 percent of Americans believe birth control is morally acceptable.

These areas of agreement are often ignored by the political parties, which spend much of their time positioning themselves based on the advice of political consultants rather than what their constituents want. Throw in the pernicious effects of gerrymandering and you have the perfect formula for an unresponsive government. Perhaps this is the reason 42 percent of Americans self-identify as political independents.

There are huge swaths of agreement about what a broad majority of the public supports. Yet these are not the priorities in Washington. Instead, we see a legislative agenda that is supported by monied special interests that control the political parties, and that's what drives legislation.

Americans are unhappy with government in general, and especially unhappy with Congress. Too bad we can't expect this to change anytime soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Barry L Ritholtz at britholtz3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at jgreiff@bloomberg.net