Brian Beutler, writing about the Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop, does us all a public service and digs through several years of polling to prove that the public’s worry about the deficit was almost entirely manufactured by politicians — Obama and Democrats included — talking about it over the years.
Beutler notes that before 2009 many polls didn’t even ask respondents whether the deficit was a major concern. But since then the public’s concern about the deficit has steadily increased, creating a self-perpetuating cycle that has left Obama facing a massive political challenge with his Thursday jobs speech:
In early 2009, Obama turned from stimulus to health care, and by insisting the reforms reduce deficits he locked his most effective recovery tools in a policy shed and handed the key to his political enemies....
By late October 2009, according to Gallup, 14 percent of the public thought the President’s top priority should be the deficit, double what it had been at the end of Bush’s term. The same poll found 41 percent of the country thought the economy should be his top priority -- down from 64 percent in 2008, before the stimulus had helped end the country’s employment free fall....
In his 2010 State of the Union, Obama announced a discretionary spending freeze. “]F]amilies across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions,” he announced. “The federal government should do the same.”
In the year and a half since, “stimulus” has fallen into political disrepute, jobs have remained a high priority for the country, and anti-deficit mania has climbed. In 2011, Public Policy Polling began tracking support for the latter two as a zero-sum matter: which should be President Obama’s top priority?
The gap has narrowed dramatically. And since Congress has rendered itself unable to pass anything that will boost employment, members are left to address the one issue on which they have at least some common ground. Predictably, the impact has been to exacerbate the jobs crisis; to confuse the public; and leave Obama and the Congress near the nadirs of their popularity.
That’s why he’s stuck now with the unenviable task of disjoining these two concepts in the minds of voters who never should have entangled them in the first place.
I’d only add one other piece of supporting evidence: The preoccupation with the deficit hasn’t even resulted in higher approval ratings for Obama on the deficit. This week’s Post poll found that Obama’s approval on the deficit is stuck at 36 percent, which, tellingly, is identical to his approval on both jobs and the econonmy. This supports the idea that public anxiety about the deficit is largely a proxy for anxiety about the economy. Yet perversely, deficit hysteria has led to an emphasis on deficit reduction in a way that makes it harder to address the economy — it persuades the public that spending cuts will create jobs and increases public skepticism that government action can fix the economy, which then leaves Dems less maneuvering room to propose meaningful job creation policies.
There are signs that Obama does plan to go big and bold in his Tursday speech in an effort to break this toxic cycle and shift the conversation back to jobs and to what government can do to create them. Here’s hoping he pulls it off — you can’t overstate how much is riding on it.