The Plank

Poll On The Economy (bad!) And Liberalism (not So Bad!)

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The latest CBS/New York Times poll is out and its full of provocative results. The headline (literally) is "Weak Economy Sours Public's View of Future." Among the findings: 48 percent of Americans say the economy is "fairly bad" while another 30 percent say it's "very bad." The last time the CBS/Times poll captured such pessimism was January of 1992, while the country was deep in recession.

Not surprisingly, the economy is also voters' top concern: 32 percent say it's the most important problem facing the country today. The next closest is the war, at 12 percent, with health care and the cost of fuel each running a very distant third at 7 percent.

That's not the only finding to suggest health care insecurity, which was the voters' top preoccupation at various points last year, has diminished in the face of more pressing issues. When asked to identify the "most important economic problem facing the country today," respondents place health care way down on the list, after fuel costs, unemployment, and the mortgage crisis, among others.

Still, people worried about their health care bills are bound to be more worried about the economy overall and vice versa. And there's plenty in the poll to suggest health care remains a major concern for the public. Forty-two percent of respondents say they are "very concerned" about "not having enough money to pay for [their] current health care costs"; 59 percent say they are "very concerned" about paying such bills in the future.

If you think that the solutions to most of these problems necessarily invovle creating new government programs or strengthening existing ones--in other words, if you're a liberal like me--probably the most encouraging finding is the response to this question: "Would you rather have a smaller government providing fewer services, or a bigger government providing more services?" Forty-three percent say "bigger"--the exact same percentage that says "smaller." Not since since late 1991--when, apparently, the Times first began asking the question--did the public express such favorable attitudes towards government.

Of course, an even split hardly amounts to an unqualified endorsement of government activism. For comparison, consider that, during the 1960s, when huge Democratic majorities were able to enact Medicare as part of the Great Society, more than 60 percent of Americans said they trusted government to do the right thing most of the time. It's not the exact same wording, I realize, but it seems close enough to draw a broad inference.

So what's the political lesson here? On the merits, the case for more aggressive regulation and a stronger safety net--not just in health care, but also banking, pensions, and other areas--has never been stronger. And the insecurity evident in this poll suggests people are becoming more open to these sorts of initiatives--more, certainly, than they have been in a long time.

But it seems pretty clear that the voters haven't bought into the liberal project just yet, which means the politicians who believe in it--not least among them, the eventual Democratic nominee for president--have some work to do.

Update: The latest unemployment figures are in--and the news isn't encouraging. Dean Baker has the details.

--Jonathan Cohn

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