A number of folks have been arguing lately that Dems erred badly by acquiescing to steep temporary cuts at the outset of budget negotiations while parroting the claim that government needs to “tighten its belt.” This has validated the GOP’s fiscal worldview and has left Dems in the awkward position of arguing that the GOP’s cuts will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs, while simultaneously insisting that their somewhat smaller cuts are good policy — muddling the contrast between the parties.

A new Pew poll just out this afternoon seems to capture the perils of this approach. It finds that the public is souring on the GOP’s approach to the deficit, but that Obama and Dems are not gaining as a result, specifically because far more people are saying there’s no meaningful difference between the two parties’s handling of it:

As the budget debate moves into a crucial phase, far fewer Americans say that Republicans in Congress have the better approach to the budget deficit than did so in November, shortly after the GOP’s sweeping election victories. The GOP has lost ground on the deficit among political independents and, surprisingly, among key elements of the Republican base, including Tea Party supporters.

However, the public is no more supportive of Barack Obama’s approach to the budget deficit than it was in November. Rather, there has been a sharp rise in the percentage saying there is not much difference between Obama’s approach and that of congressional Republicans — 52% say that now, up from just 33% in November.

Republicans have slid by 14 points since November on the question of who has the better approach to the deficit. But Obama has not gone up as a result. Rather, he’s lost four points in the same time period. Meanwhile, the number who say there's not much difference between the two has jumped by nearly 20 points.

Some will look at these numbers and insist that the public is rendering a harsh verdict on both parties for failing to cut even more deeply. After all, the poll also shows strong support for cutting domestic spending. But polls always show general support for reducing spending, and the numbers shift once you start to talk about what specifically would be cut. What’s more, Pew also finds support for cutting defense spending, and opposition to “entitlements” cuts — so the Pew numbers hardly constitute an endorsement of the range of spending cuts that are currently deemed serious and acceptable in Washington.

At a minimum, it’s hard to see how it helps Obama and Dems to be increasingly seen as indistinguishable from Republicans. Rather than even trying to forcefully articulate an alternative vision to the GOP’s ongoing insistence on slashing spending immediately across the board in order to rescue the economy, Dems — with some notable exceptions — mostly seem to be stumbling around on the GOP’s rhetorical turf.