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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.

P.P.S. Jon Cohen writes:

The blog you mention cites good-quality polls that all make the same point: that head-to-head, voters see the economy as a bigger priority than the deficit. There is no dispute about this; the economy is the clear No. 1 issue.

However, none of these data contradict what the Post story in question says about public attitudes:

1) the deficit has become increasingly important as an issue … polls from ’08 to ’09 showed a jump in voter concern with the issue specifically, as well as higher prioritization of deficit reduction over increased spending. Not much has changed in the past months on this, but it’s a significantly different landscape to late ’08/early ’09;

2) few credit the economic recovery package — only about a third of those polled in the most recent Post-ABC survey said the stimulus package has lifted the economy; and

3) there’s divided opinion about what to do now … e.g. see April CBS-NYT poll … 50 percent said feds should spend money to create jobs, while nearly as many, 42 percent, said not spend money and instead focus on deficit reduction.

My reply: I quoted Lori Montgomery writing, “a competing threat — the exploding federal budget deficit — seems to be resonating more powerfully in Congress and among voters.” The above discussion is all about the voters, not Congress. If by “resonating more powerfully,” Montgomery meant “resonating more powerfully than unemployment/recession,” then I think she’s contradicted by the survey data. But it’s possible that she meant “resonating more powerfully than before,” in which case Cohen has a point.

In any case, I agree with Cohen that, even if people are more concerned about the economy than about deficits, they may very well be skeptical about deficit financing as a remedy to economic ills. As noted above, I thought Montgomery’s “mixed signals” comment was completely reasonable.