The first major action taken by Barack Obama in 2016—a set of new gun-control measures mandated via executive order—is aimed at a threat that Americans don't spend a lot of time worrying about.
In its latest survey of Americans, Gallup finds that "dissatisfaction with government," not guns or even terrorism, tops the list of concerns:
According to Gallup's monthly measure of the most important problem facing the U.S., an average of 16% of Americans in 2015 mentioned some aspect of government, including President Barack Obama, Congress or political conflict, as the country's chief problem. The economy came in second with 13% mentioning it, while unemployment and immigration tied for third at 8%.
Obama's new actions against guns include expanding background checks; changing definitions of mental illness in a way that limits who is able to own guns; increasing the number of federal agents charged with tracking gun sales and crimes; and more.
As Jacob Sullum noted here in December, most of the "common-sense" measures Obama is pushing would not have stopped the San Bernardino shooting or virtually any other recent mass attacks.
Because violent crime, including gun-related crime and murders, is way down, gun-control issues don't generally capture the public imagination the way that they would in a world of increasing murder rates. In the same Gallup survey that listed "dissatisfaction with government" as the top concern for each of the past two years, "guns/Gun control" was considered "the most important problem" by 2 percent of respondents, about the same who listed "lack of respect for each other" and pollution.
Yet Obama pushes forward with measures that even he acknowledges "will save few lives," almost certainly more out of politics than an interest in dealing with the most serious problems facing the country.
As Alexis Simendinger writes at RealClearPolitics:
During Obama's White House tenure, the percentage of Americans who say they support the rights of gun owners has increased. In particular, support among Republicans for gun rights rose after 2000.
But liberal Democrats, women, African-Americans, Latinos, urban dwellers, and Americans with college and post-graduate degrees say they favor controls on gun ownership. In other words, Obama's 2008 and 2012 coalitions back gun restrictions.
The president would be wiser to focus on addressing concerns over which he has at least some influence: the size, scope, and spending of government. That's what people are worried about (indeed, over the past several years, more than twice as many people say that "big government" is a bigger "threat to the future of the country" than "big buisness" and "big labor" combined.
Obama's willingness to always pivot to issues that are not front and center, along with his willingness to expand the role of the state in virtually every aspect of our lives from health care to mass surveillance is surely a big part of the reason why people are consistently worried more about government than anything else. In this, of course, he's had plenty of help from Republicans and his fellow Democrats, which also helps to explain another Gallup finding released this time last year: "In U.S. New Record 43% Are Independents."