Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Other Issues in Focus as War, Economy Fade

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Other Issues in Focus as War, Economy Fade

Article excerpt

After a dozen years of war and a half-dozen of economic troubles, the United States is beginning to wrestle with a question even more existential than those big events: What does it mean to be an American?

Immigration reform and gay marriage. Affirmative action and voting rights. Gun control and, more broadly, the role of government in our lives. Today, the Supreme Court, Congress, the White House and the public all are confronting a collective slate of issues that, taken together, speak to the country's evolving identity.

Fueling this debate: dramatic demographic changes that are causing equally dramatic shifts in public opinion on various matters. They suggest that the notion of how we define being an American may be shifting.

President Barack Obama, being inaugurated for a second term in January, seemed to see this coming at us. "We have always understood that when times change, so must we," Mr. Obama said as he began his second term with an agenda heavy on domestic issues. "Decisions," he said, "are upon us, and we cannot afford delay."

There are two key reasons identity issues haven't pushed to the forefront until recently.

The 9/11 attacks produced a strong focus on all matters of terrorism and war. That included privacy, torture and anything related to national security and foreign policy -- and, of course, protecting ourselves from another attack. First Afghanistan weighed heavily, then Iraq.

Then the economy showed signs of softening. The economic slide began and the bottom dropped out, plunging the country into recession as 2009 began. Unemployment hit double digits before things stabilized. Next came the slow path to recovery and the debate on how to make it happen.

Now, the Iraq war is over, the Afghanistan one is winding to an end and immediate fears of further terrorism have, to some extent, faded. The economy has been rebounding: The job market is growing healthier, home prices are rising and consumers are starting to spend more. Those issues have receded enough to push domestic concerns higher on the list of what people, and thus politicians, think is most important.

Polling by the Gallup organization underscores this notion.

In March 2001, education, ethical/moral issues and the economy ranked as the nation's top problems, and no other issue reached double digits. A year later, after the attacks, 22 percent cited terrorism, followed by the economy and "fear of war/feelings of fear in this country."

By March 2005, the Iraq war took precedence, with 25 percent calling it the nation's top problem, followed by Social Security and the economy. Then, amid the 2009 recession, 51 percent of the country cited the economy, with unemployment or jobs, a lack of money and poor or pricy health care rounding out the first rung of concerns.

Now look at last month. The economy remains the top concern, but the percentage of people who say so -- 24 percent -- is half of what it was four years ago. Dissatisfaction with government is a close second. Unemployment and jobs, and the federal budget deficit, also are up there. Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism, national security and foreign policy rank far below.

Spans of peace and prosperity typically usher secondary issues to the forefront. This is because we have time to worry about, and address, things that feel less important during wartime and recession. …

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