What Good Is a Good Economy?

Even as the U.S. recovery ramps up, polling shows Americans are more anxious than ever about being the world's top power.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

It doesn't matter how much good news the U.S. economy has had, many Americans just aren't satisfied. A solid half of all citizens told Gallup they think it is important for the United States to be the world's largest economy. And while that's only a slim majority—49 percent still say it's not important—it's the highest in more than 20 years, and the first time a majority has said that.

Is It Important for the U.S. to Be No. 1 Economically?

What changed since the last time Gallup asked, in 2007? It looks like William Bell was right—you really don't miss your water until your well runs dry. Consider the chart in light of global trends over the last two decades and it starts to look like an inverted barometer of economic might: The better things are, the less Americans care about being No. 1. And the worse things are, the more attached they are to the symbolic top spot on the podium.

At the outset of Gallup's graph, the gap is pretty close. As the post-Cold War pax Americana takes hold, Americans get more and more confident. Why worry about being the top economy when there's no obvious rival and the markets are cruising along? There's a slight blip around the end of the tech bubble and the resulting recession, but pretty soon the trend is right back on track, climaxing in 2007. Then: the fall. Since the great recession, with the American economy still limping, Americans are more worried about reclaiming the top spot.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the anxieties expressed by Republican candidates in recent elections—leitmotifs about maintaining American greatness, or about taking back the country—there's a large partisan gap, with 48 percent of independents and 41 percent of Democrats saying being No. 1 matters, versus nearly two-thirds of Republicans.

But what about the long run of job growth? What about the booming stock market? What about all those quarters of GDP growth?

The ongoing worry demonstrated by this poll may be another symptom of the unequal recovery. Despite positive indicators, the benefits are not accruing evenly. So, for example, there are more jobs, which means the unemployment rate is lower, but the pay for those workers and others isn't keeping pace. The typical link between job growth and wage growth seems to have been severed, leaving economists scratching their heads. The middle class has been undergoing a lengthy hollowing-out that's only becoming clear now, post-recession. And the wealth gap tends to seep into other areas, like education, with huge long-term effects.

The other big factor is that Americans hear footsteps:

Is the U.S. the Leading World Economic Power?

More than any other rival, Americans are concerned about China. A record low 17 percent think the U.S. is the top economic power in 2015, though that figure has stayed stable since 2010. But in a 2013 Gallup poll, 53 percent of respondents said China was the leading economic power. (That poll question offers a good case study in how asking questions differently can produce markedly different results. Prompted in 2000 to choose the top economic power from a list, two-thirds of Americans named the United States, much higher than the figure shown on the graph above.)

Whether they're factually right is a different matter. In late 2014, for the first time, IMF figures showed China with a larger economy than the U.S., but that's more complicated than it seems. When adjusted for purchasing-power parity, a measure that's intended to produce a more apples-to-apples comparison, the U.S. still sits comfortably ahead. Some experts are skeptical of official Chinese statistics, and many economists say the U.S. remains the most important single economic power in the world, figures aside. The most important city for the world economy? New York.

In short, Americans are right to believe that China's economic power is growing, and they're right that the U.S. hold on the top spot is far more tenuous than it was in the 1990s, when the American monopoly seemed unchallenged. But in most ways, the U.S. is still in the global economic catbird seat. Of course, what this poll aims to do isn't to provide a reliable economic statistic but to demonstrate how confident Americans feel—and in that respect, their nerves are showing.