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October 11 2013

It's the Dysfunction, Stupid!

Patrice J. Lee

New polling indicates the federal government shutdown is the top concern for Americans – even above the economy.

Former President Bill Clinton made famous the statement, “It’s the economy, stupid!” This school of thought posits that elections are won or lost based on the state of the economy.

New Gallup polling finds that for the first time (since 1939) government dysfunction and the shutdown have surpassed the economy and other issues as the top problem in the U.S. Thirty-three percent of Americans cite dissatisfaction with government and elected representatives as the nation's top issue. Government dysfunction overshadows the economy (19%), unemployment (12%), the deficit (12%), and healthcare (12%).

This is significant. Washington, D.C., lives in a bubble; issues that capture pages of ink, rolls of blogs and constant TV segments here hardly get a few seconds on the evening news outside of the Beltway. However, the government shutdown and its rippling impacts on private sector are playing far and wide.

Gallup reads into these numbers and provides context:

The percentage of Americans who view dysfunction in Washington as the most important problem facing the country is now at a record-high level. Thus, Washington leaders' continuing focus on posturing and sticking rigidly to principle while waiting for the other side to "give in" is obviously wearing thin with the American public, particularly given that a partial shutdown of the government has ensued.

During the last protracted government shutdown in January 1996, Americans also increasingly said that dysfunctional government was the nation's top problem, but that percentage rose only to 17%, roughly half the level seen today. Back then, Americans were more likely to mention the budget and deficit (28%) than dysfunctional government as the bigger problem. This suggests that Americans this time are focusing more on problems with the process involved in governing rather than on the underlying issues involved.

And not surprisingly Americans’ satisfaction with the way Congress and the White House are governing is down significantly –dropping to an all-time low. Only 18% of Americans are satisfied with the way the nation is being governed, and that’s down from the 32% last month before the partial government shutdown kicked off.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats escape scott free.

More than six in 10 Americans (62%) now view the GOP unfavorably, a record high. By comparison, nearly half of Americans (49%) view the Democratic Party unfavorably. Roughly one in four Americans see both parties unfavorably.

Our government leaders have a PR nightmare on their hands. To repair their public image before the 2014 elections, they better be prepared to shake a lot of hands and kiss a lot of babies.  

On a serious note, Americans once again are seeing very publically the sausage-making behind governing a nation. Political talking heads denigrate the gridlock in Washington and criticize the impasse in Washington as unacceptable. However, our system of government was never created to be a frictionless machine that churns out new legislation like cows producing milk.

Our Founders booby-trapped the American system of government with checks and balances against power accumulation. Most recently, we elected a divided government that balances power across the parties. If we had a purely conservative or a purely liberal Congress and White House something might get done but there’s no guarantee of that. Just ask President George W. Bush. And many Americans think that government actually works when it’s not producing new legislation or spending more money, thereby expanding its reach.

There’s no excuse for potentially putting our nation’s financial credibility at risk but disagreement is a hallmark of democracy. Sometimes the route to compromise is neither easy nor short.

The pain being felt across our nation because of the government shutdown is extremely unfortunate and seems to be without end. However, if a deal is struck tonight and government workers return to work on Tuesday (following the federal holiday), the shutdown quickly will become a memory. It will hardly be a blip on our radars a year from now –heading into the 2014 elections. (That factors into the political calculation members of both parties are making right now.)

Returning to Clinton’s quote, while the polling indicates the government shutdown is front of mind right now, once that magic deal is struck Americans will likely go right back to what concerns them most: working to feed their families.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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