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Unsurprisingly, people are more worried about the economy and jobs than about deficits

Jeff Lax sends along this good catch from Ben Somberg, who noticed this from Washington Post writer Lori Montgomery:

If Congress doesn’t provide additional stimulus spending, economists inside and outside the administration warn that the nation risks a prolonged period of high unemployment or, more frightening, a descent back into recession. But a competing threat — the exploding federal budget deficit — seems to be resonating more powerfully in Congress and among voters.

Somberg is skeptical, though, at least of the part about “resonating among voters.” He finds that in four out of five recent polls, people are much more concerned about jobs than about the deficit:

A Pew Research / National Journal poll from early June asked “Which of the following national economic issues worries you most?” Number one was “job situation” with 41%. “Federal budget deficit” got 23%.

An NBC / Wall Street Journal poll from early May asked “Please tell me which one of these items you think should be the top priority for the federal government.” Sure enough, “job creation and economic growth” won with 35%. “The deficit and government spending” got 20%.

A Fox News poll also in early May got even more dramatic results. “Economy and jobs” topped the priority list with 47%, while “deficit, spending” garnered only 15%.

A CBS / NYT poll in early April found 27% prioritizing “jobs”, 27% the “economy” and 5% prioritizing “budget deficit/national debt.”

In the USA Today / Gallup poll from late May . . . participants were asked “How serious a threat to the future well-being of the United States do you consider each of the following.” For “federal government debt”, 40% said extremely serious, 39% very serious, and 15% somewhat serious. For “unemployment”, 33% said extremely serious, 50% said very serious, and 15% said somewhat serious.

a newer Gallup poll, from a week ago, asking “What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?” finds the economy and jobs on top. “Economy in general” gets 28%, “Unemployment/Jobs” gets 21%, and “Federal budget deficit” gets 7%.

The Washington Post’s own polls have not asked a question that directly addresses the matter.

I haven’t looked at these polls myself, but based on the above, Somberg seems to have a point.

This is not to say that Montgomery’s “economists inside and outside the administration” don’t have a point. Maybe it is a good idea to raise taxes and cut spending now, or maybe it’s better to take more debt now and plan to pay it off in a few years. My macroeconomic expertise hovers around zero, so I’ll offer no expert opinion on that one. But I’d have to see some better evidence before I believe that the deficit is “resonating more powerfully” than unemployment/recession in the opinions of voters.

P.S. To be fair to Montgomery, it looks like Somberg picked her worst paragraph. She follows up with something that sounds a lot more reasonable:

Polls show most people don’t think Obama’s first stimulus package worked, and they are sending mixed signals about whether Washington should spend more on jobs or start minding the national debt.

I could believe that people are “sending mixed signals” in polls. Again, I haven’t looked at the poll numbers, but it could very well be, for example, that, even if people don’t care about the deficit, they could still be suspicious of “federal spending.” It all depends on how it’s framed, right? For example, the Somberg considers deficit talk to be part of “conservatives’ dream universe,” but, to the extent that deficit-cutting is done by increased taxes on the upper-income brackets, it could be more of a conservative’s nightmare. Tax cuts sound good, spending cuts sound good, lower deficits sound good, but spending on particular items sound good also. Ask the right questions and you can get all sorts of incoherent views from the public. This is not to say that public opinion doesn’t matter, just that people are ultimately asking their leaders to make decisions that lead to good economic decisions (leading to jobs and economic growth). From a public opinion standpoint, my impression is that things like deficits are just a means to an end, and basically I think Somberg is getting things right in his criticism. I think Montgomery is right that public opinion is relevant in regard to trust in Obama and the Democrats to enact good policies; she just has to be a bit more careful in her specifics.

3 Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    Having worked in electoral politics, I know there's at least the perception (if not necessarily the reality!) that moderates (ie, the typical undecided voters) often tend to be very concerned about deficits. Not sure if this is true, but even the perception that it is among political types might be why politicians are so interested in deficits, especially politicians from swing districts.

  2. I don't see how the exploding federal budget deficit, or recession could be any 'more frightening' to a layperson already facing prolonged unemployment.

  3. Mellors says:

    Isn't a simpler explanation that a lot of ordinary people, employed in the private sector, have a perception that deficit spending for the sheer sake of stimulus has a deleterious effect on their employers' business – by making credit harder to obtain, by reducing the disposable income of their employer's customers through higher taxes, by creating distraction and uncertainty and reducing the tendency to invest (in one's company's product or service) or take risks, and by crowding-out the private economy? They can see how this directly threatens their own job.
    It's probable that for most people, a concern with economy+jobs is pretty much the same thing as a concern with deficits. For many voters, addressing deficits (at least deficits created by programmatic government spending)solves the economy+jobs problem. You should really think of adding the two categories together rather than ranking them.