Domestic Issues Take Center Stage

Now that hurricanes have left the Gulf Coast in ruins and gasoline has spiked to $3 a gallon, Americans are more likely to name domestic problems as the most important ones facing the United States these days, AP-Ipsos polling found.

Homegrown problems — including worries about fuel costs and political leadership — now rank about even with overseas concerns such as the terror threat and war. Public concerns about Iraq remain high.

“Things at home are in peril, and we’re spread thin throughout the world,” said Nick Tepsic, a surgical technician in Boynton Beach, Fla., who is a political independent. “We need to be worrying about things at home. We have a terrible debt going on; we need to improve education; we had two terrible natural disasters here. Our money could best be spent in other ways.”

People were asked in an open-ended question last week to name the nation’s most important problem.

Just over a third named domestic issues, including energy costs, political leadership and morality, and just over a third named foreign affairs, especially the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism. About a fourth said the economy.

In July, four in 10 named foreign affairs, about a quarter of those polled named the economy and a quarter named domestic affairs.

Concerns about terrorism have eased just slightly and worries about energy prices and political leadership are among the top domestic concerns, the poll found.

Public opinion analysts say the shift of attention toward the homefront is no surprise. Hurricane reconstruction, high gas prices and political scandals in Washington have been dominating the news this fall.

“The hurricane issue has refocused people on government’s response to big domestic problems,” said Robert Blendon, a public opinion analyst at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “Gas prices are the big change over the last four months. It’s really impacting families, and they are worried about it for the impact this winter.”

Gasoline prices had topped $2 a gallon by midsummer, but three months later were close to $3 per gallon. Consumer confidence has been lagging.

People on the West coast were more likely to name fuel prices as a top concern than people in other regions. Married men were more likely than those who are unmarried to name the economy. People with a high school education or less were more likely to name the war in Iraq than those with more education.

Democrats and independents were more likely than Republicans to name the economy as the top problem.

“The interest in domestic issues has been intensified by gas prices, which have gotten people to focus on where the economy is right now — and that leads to jobs,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster.

The worries about Iraq remain high — with almost a fourth of those polled naming the war as their top concern.

“I do feel like we give too much to other countries, rather than spending money here on poverty, education and AIDS,” said Amy Bergstrom, a bartender in Newport News, Va. and a Republican. “But the war has split the nation in two. It’s tearing the country apart. People aren’t standing behind President Bush, and other countries see that.”

The focus on Iraq has intensified with this weekend’s vote on an Iraqi constitution.

Karlyn Bowman, a polling analyst at the American Enterprise Institute said Iraq remains central to public attitudes these days, but she’s noticed a shift of attention homeward in recent weeks.

“The hurricanes did focus the public on a lot of domestic needs,” she said. “Iraq is still there as a big issue, but these domestic issues now loom larger.”

The poll of 499 adults was conducted Oct. 3-5 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.

Copyright © 2005 The Associated Press