December 28, 2012

What Americans Want in 2013

By Bruce Stokes, Director of Pew Global Economic Attitudes, Pew Research Center

Special to CNN

As Americans make their New Year’s resolutions, gazing into their crystal balls in anticipation of 2013, they are pessimistic about the economy, doubtful about Washington avoiding the fiscal cliff and worried about rising inequality and economic unfairness. Preoccupied with issues at home, they want to avoid getting dragged deeper into conflicts in the Middle East, but nonetheless are willing to take military action against Iran to halt Tehran’s nuclear weapons program.

Downbeat domestic attitudes coupled with reticence about international engagement poses challenges for a world that still may need a strong United States.

After a rise in optimism about the economy in the run up to the U.S. presidential election in November 2012, Americans’ economic outlook has turned more negative on the eve of the New Year. A quarter of the population says the economy will be worse off 12 months from now, up from just 8 percent in September – the highest level of U.S. pessimism since June 2011. Just 37 percent expect the economy to be better off in 2013, down from 43 percent in September.

Given the U.S. economy’s driving role in the global economy, such American pessimism does not bode well for Europe, now mired in recession, nor for China, just poised for a recovery.

Some Americans’ pessimism about 2013 may be driven by the fact that a plurality (49 percent) think that the United States will be unable to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff on January 1, 2013 because the Congress and the White House will fail to reach agreement on a debt reduction strategy. And they are no more optimistic about the long-term prospects of getting the country’s finances in order. Just 44 percent say the country will have made significant progress on the debt five years from now.

Another source of pessimism stems from rising concern about inequality and class conflict. Four-in-ten Americans now strongly believe that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer, up from 28 percent in 2002. More than half think that the U.S. economic system favors the wealthy. And just over two-thirds think that there are conflicts between the rich and the poor, an increase of 21 percentage points since 2009.

In 2013, there may be legislation to narrow the rich-poor gap. Certainly, more than two-thirds of the public backs raising taxes on the top 2 percent of the income earners in the United States, a central issue in the fiscal cliff debate.

But there is no sense that the American people are on the verge of class conflict in 2013. Polls show they just want a better chance of achieving success themselves – they do not want redistributive government policies, they want ones that give everyone a fair shot at success, reflecting bedrock American belief in the individual’s ability to succeed through hard work.

Internationally, in 2013, Americans would like to stop the world and just get off. More than eight-in-ten think that Washington should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate on problems at home. Such isolationism has a long history in the United States. But it is on the rise, up 10 percentage points in just the last decade.

This aversion to engagement could have an impact next year on U.S. policies in the Middle East. Six-in-ten Americans want the Obama administration to be less involved in the region, especially in leadership changes, such as the possible change in Damascus. With regard to the war in Syria, a similar percentage say that the United States does not have a responsibility to do something about the fighting there, a sentiment in potential conflict with president Obama’s vow to intervene if the Syrian government moves to use chemical weapons in the conflict.

2013 will also be a fateful year for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, as the White House and Pentagon work out the drawdown schedule for the American troops there. For most of the American public, this can’t happen quickly enough. Six-in-ten want the troops removed as soon as possible, up from just 40 percent in 2010.

The desire for disengagement is not evident, however, with regard to the public’s views about Iran. Americans see Tehran’s nuclear weapons program as the greatest international threat to the well-being of the United States. And more than half (56 percent) think that it is more important to take a firm stand with Iran than to avoid a military conflict. This resolve could get tested in the New Year.

A similar public willingness to support confrontation contrary to general isolationist sentiment can be expected in Washington’s relations with Beijing in 2013. Nearly half of Americans think that their government should get tougher on China and such sentiment is up nine percentage points in a year-and-a-half. The Obama administration has already brought more cases against China in the World Trade Organization than did the Bush administration. Americans would seem to support more of the same in 2013.

So the American public looks to 2013 with a mixture of economic pessimism, frustration with domestic economic inequities, isolationism and a touch of continued assertiveness. This is an inward-looking America, but one that can be provoked.