President Obama’s reelection followed by the unapologetic case for liberalism in his second inaugural address has triggered a lot of talk about a “long-term electoral realignment” in which the country moves decidedly left. There’s a plausible argument to be made that this could happen, especially when one takes into account the nation’s shifting demographics and the general haplessness of Republicans. But a new Pew survey of what Americans consider the nation’s top priorities raises the possibility that Obama is seriously misjudging the political moment.
During Obama’s inauguration speech, he effectively ignored the issue of deficit reduction and didn’t have much to say about reviving economic growth. He did, however, discuss spending more on infrastructure and addressing global warming. Though he made only a passing allusion to gun control in his actual inaugural, he made a high profile speech this month to unveil a proposal addressing the issue.
So how does this stack up against the actual priorities of the American public? Unsurprisingly, according to Pew, the economy (86 percent) and jobs (79 percent) are still top concerns. But what might be a bit more surprising is what comes next: deficit reduction. For all the talk that the public doesn’t care about deficits, 72 percent consider it a top issue, up from 53 percent in January 2009 when Obama took office. More Americans consider the deficit a top priority than at any time since Pew began asking the question in 1994. Meanwhile, three of the bottom four priorities on the list were stronger gun control (37 percent), improving infrastructure (30 percent) and addressing global warming (28 percent).
Interestingly, on the gun control issue, the percentage of Americans who identified making stricter laws a top priority declined 10 points since 2001, a time when the assault weapons ban was still in place.
Another item on Obama’s agenda is immigration, which is tough to get a gauge on from the Pew survey. That was low on the list, with just 39 percent of Americans considering it a top priority. But the survey asked about “dealing with illegal immigration” – so, it may not be indicative of how Americans view the importance of the immigration issue as a whole.
Obviously, it would be short-sighted to draw sweeping conclusions from one poll. But at the same time, it should be reason for some caution to those analysts who assume that Obama’s reelection represents a mandate for him to pursue a broad liberal agenda. Should he govern further to the left in his second term – as his moves since the election have indicated – it might trigger a backlash rather than a realignment.