Still, other issues have consumed the bulk of lawmakers’ attention: immigration and gun control in Obama’s case and a trio of administration scandals in the case of congressional Republicans.
Frank Newport, Gallup editor in chief, said the fact that guns and immigration have received more recent legislative attention than the economy may reflect the power of small and concentrated constituencies such as the families of the Newtown, Conn., shooting victims and the National Rifle Association.
“You’re kind of asking the question, to what does Congress respond?” Newport said. The economy, “maybe that’s too diffuse and too broad. You don’t have the same kind of intensity of people who say, we’re fighting for more jobs.”
Some pollsters say the problem with the economy is the degree to which Republicans and Democrats disagree over how best to speed up growth in the short term. Government spending levels are the biggest sticking point: Republicans want to cut them even more, saying that federal debt is slowing the economy. Obama and many other Democrats want to spend more in the short term by repealing the sequester and funding infrastructure projects in an effort to stimulate economic activity.
“When you’ve got Republicans saying government is doing too much and needs to get out of the way of business, and Democrats saying government needs to step in and do more to help people out, it becomes pretty hard to bridge that economic gap,” said Jon McHenry, vice president of North Star Opinion Research, a Republican firm that polls for clients including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Voters aren’t offering strict guidance to break that impasse, some analysts say. “They say they want jobs,” said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, director of Social Policy and Politics at the Democratic think tank Third Way who has sat in on several focus groups that featured economic questions. “But average Americans don’t have a prescription for Congress for what they want to do about that.”
Some lawmakers also appear to be reading the results of the 2012 election — in which Obama won a second term and neither house of Congress changed hands, despite high unemployment — as evidence that voters have resigned themselves to a sluggish economy and won’t punish leaders for its performance.
Business groups see several possibilities for compromise, some of which poll well among voters across the ideological spectrum. Engler’s list includes expanding domestic energy production, streamlining the tax code and borrowing at cheap interest rates to fund highway projects and other infrastructure development.
Obama and lawmakers could also work together to speed through new agreements to expand trade with Europe and Asia, said Aric Newhouse, senior vice president for policy and government relations for the National Association of Manufacturers, an issue for which both parties have expressed broad support.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), vice chairman of the Congress Joint Economic Committee, said her efforts have moved past a “crisis mentality” and talk of “stimulus” and into measures to boost America’s economic competiveness in the long term, including skills training for workers, infrastructure improvements, export promotion and streamlining some government regulations.
She’s optimistic some of those initiatives could win enough bipartisan support in both the Senate and the House to become law this year. “If it was up to me,” she said, “this is all we’d be doing.”