The mood shift doesn't coincide with a suddenly brighter economic outlook: The unemployment rate and economic growth haven't changed much in the past three months. A more plausible explanation is that, instead of economic concerns diminishing, worries about politics are rising. And to a large exent, the two spheres of national interest overlap.
Amid headlines about a "fiscal cliff" for the economy, Americans may be concluding that their own job prospects and pocketbook health depend in significant ways on policies being determined in Washington – a place that seems to know a lot more about bickering than about grand bargains to achieve fiscal security.
Note that the Gallup survey was conducted Jan. 7-10, a few days after the White House and Congress reached a deal that averted steep tax hikes this year, but that failed to set a longer-term course toward stabilizing the national debt. The fiscal negotiations may have affected the Gallup results by underscoring a range of simmering worries in public thought, including disatisfaction with Congress, the prospect that rising debt will restrict the nation's future prosperity or force cuts in popular programs like Medicare, or concern about future stalemates in Washington over important fiscal matters.
A Pew Research Center poll in December found, for example, that 74 percent of Americans say a combination of tax increases and spending cuts in "major programs" would be the best way to reduce federal deficits. OK, public opinion polls don't reveal any groundswell for entitlement cuts or middle-class tax hikes. But this middle-ground view stands in contrast to the prevalent sound bites emanating from Washington, where Republicans lean heavily against tax hikes while many Democrats resist entitlement restructuring (though President Obama himself has left that door ajar).