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Are Republicans Undercutting Themselves On Blame For Deficits?

Today is Deficit Mania Day in the chattering classes, with two new polls coming out (NBC/Wall Street Journal and CBS/New York Times) showing a spike in public concern about the federal government’s fiscal condition.

The subject is getting an extra boost in attention because the polls coincide with higher-than-expected cost estimates (see Nate’s last post) emanating from CBO regarding the fiscal impact of health care plans undergoing work in two Senate committees. Will wavering congressional Democrats pull the plug on Obama’s commitment to secure real action on universal health care this year out of fears about the cost? We’ll soon find out.

But meanwhile, there’s a finding on fiscal politics in the NBC/WSJ poll that provides some real comfort for the administration, along with a bit of a puzzle. Five months into the Obama administration, and after weeks of steady Republican hammering of the president as a big spender, only 6% of Americans primarily blame Obama for the budget situation, while 46% primarily blame George W. Bush. (Another 21% percent blame “Democrats in Congress,” while seven percent blame “Republicans in Congress” and 13% blame everybody). We don’t have crosstabs on this poll just yet, but the number is so low that you have to figure that relatively few rank-and-file Republicans blame Obama for the level of deficits, despite the energetic efforts of their leaders in Washington to do just that. That’s the “bit of a puzzle.”

Now it’s possible that millions of Americans (including many who don’t necessarily support the president) have donned green eyeshades and personally conducted the analysis necessary to establish that yes, Obama inherited most of the current and projected budget deficits from the Bush administration.

But I have a more plausible theory: the vast torrent of words that Republican politicians and activists have uttered since November attributing their 2008 and 2006 defeats on Bush’s “abandonment” or “betrayal” of “conservative fiscal principles” are having the perverse effect of insulating Barack Obama from blame for big deficits, even among Republicans.

The blame-Bush-the-spender rhetoric meets a variety of deep psychological needs for conservatives. It is frankly the only explanation for 2006 and 2008 that does not risk raising the abhorrent thought that conservative ideology itself is unpopular or ineffectual. Moreover, finding some way to repudiate the Bush legacy is essential for any Republican “fresh start” that does not involve telling the American people they made a big mistake last November. Given their huge emotional stake in the proposition that America remains a “center-right nation,” and their determination to keep a tight grip on the GOP, conservatives are pretty much forced to identify Bush as a president who strayed from the true faith. Since red ink is the most convenient explanation, the collateral reinforcement of Bush’s responsibility for the budget deficits that Republicans are now screaming about is probably a price they are willing to pay.

For Obama, this is a political asset of real but limited value. Even though Americans don’t blame him for deficits, if they ultimately fear them more than they want universal health coverage or additional economic stimulus, his agenda could be in trouble. It’s another reason that he must soon deploy the bully pulpit to shape public opinion—certainly on health care, as Nate and others have suggested–but also on the broad outlines of the direction he seeks for the country, and the decisions and tradeoffs he’s asking Congress and the people themselves to make.