Via Walter Russell Mead, Gallup has released a new poll of the goals Americans wish the next president to pursue. The top priority, which 92% of respondents describe as extremely or very important, is “creating good jobs”. Reducing the deficit comes in at 86%, with comparable interest in ensuring the stability of the major entitlement programs and improving the nation’s public schools. Last of all the options, 49% think the president should try to raise taxes on the rich.
Mead notes the tension between two things Americans very much want: deficit reduction and the preservation of entitlements. Although it’s unclear how much attention respondents paid to the subtleties of the question, there’s no outright contradiction here. The poll asks about “ensuring the long-term stability” of Social Security and Medicare–a goal that might actually require deficit reduction.
I was more struck by the fact that so many of the priorities that the poll identified are beyond even an expansive view of the president’s powers. Contrary to what both candidates say, there’s not a lot that the president can do to create good jobs. The entitlement and deficit issues are ultimately in Congress’ hands. And improvements in public education depend on states and local school districts. In fact, the only substantive issue mentioned by the poll over which the president has direct authority is “[d]ealing with terrorism and other international threats”.
The disconnect between what voters want and what the president can reasonably be expected to deliver is one reason for Americans’ perennial disaffection with Washington. Like children, we demand the impossible and complain when it isn’t provided. “Big” campaigns encourage this infantile reaction, and the cult of the presidency in the media and popular history may be another contributing factor. But candidates aren’t likely to be much wiser or more virtuous than the citizens whose votes they seek.
It’s fun to mock Romney and Obama for their many flaws. Nevertheless, the blame for their grandiosity and incoherence belongs mostly to us.