WASHINGTON -- Measuring what worries Americans most is an inexact science at best. Very often, the issues that produce the greatest noise don't even top the list.
Congress is in the midst of a political fight over what to do about illegal aliens and the budget deficit, Democrats are hammering the White House on the war in Iraq and President Bush is still getting failing grades in the polls for his handling of the economy and unemployment.
But in a recent Gallup Poll (March 13-16), when 1,000 Americans were asked what they worry about "a great deal," the top five mentioned problems were not issues at the head of Congress' legislative agenda.
The top five were: the availability and affordability of health care (68 percent); the Social Security system (51 percent), the availability and affordability of energy (48 percent); drug use (48 percent); and crime and violence (45 percent).
To the best of my knowledge, Congress doesn't plan to undertake any major heath-care reforms this year. Social Security has been dropped from the nation's reform agenda for now. Energy, drug abuse and crime are not expected to be acted on anytime soon.
Surprisingly, while the war in Iraq and against terrorism has dominated the national dialogue and news coverage, Iraq did not make Gallup's list of top 12 concerns. The "possibility of future terrorist attacks in the U.S." doesn't even make the top five, but comes in at No. 6 with 45 percent.
Inexplicably, despite Bush's low marks on the economy (contrary to all of the evidence that the economy is strong and the national unemployment rate is low), the majority of Americans polled do not pick it as their chief worry.
Indeed, the economy is at No. 7 with 43 percent and unemployment is at No. 11. Less than one-third (31 percent) of Americans now say that jobs are a major concern, findings that are at odds with polls showing deep dissatisfaction about the economy.
While immigration is the hottest issue in Congress these days, it barely makes the top 10 at No. 9, drawing only 43 percent of Americans who rate it as a chief worry. But that's up 10 points from a year ago.
Rounding out the list of 12 top concerns are hunger and homelessness at No. 8 with 43 percent, the environment at No. 10, with 40 percent, and at the bottom of the list is race relations at No. 12, drawing only 22 percent.
The news media has been pounding the theory of global warming of late, so that probably has a lot to do with its place on the list. The debate over illegal aliens no doubt has pushed race relations up slightly as an issue, particularly among immigrant minorities, but this is clearly not a significant worry among the public at large.
What are we to make of all this?
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