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Why Washington and its debt woes eclipse 'jobs' as public's top concerns

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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).

Separately, some polls show rising worry among Americans about living standards in the future. A USA Today/Gallup survey asked how likely it is that today's young people will have a better living standard than their parents. In both December and in back in 2011, a slim majority said "unlikely." By contrast, the mood had been much more optimistic, even in the recession's immediate aftermath, in January 2010.

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