The distance between “President Trump said he supports X” and “President Trump has convinced Congress to pass X” is measured in miles, not inches. It is with that in mind that we approach The Post’s report about a possible alignment between Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on eliminating the debt ceiling once and for all — a move that, if nothing else, would end the now-regular squabbling on Capitol Hill that accompanies its eventual increase. It’s a proposal that would need to be approved by at least some part of the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, a task that can never be underestimated in its difficulty.
One of the reasons that Republicans in Congress will oppose the idea is the reason that’s presented each time the limit needs to be raised: It’s a tacit approval of growing the federal debt. It doesn’t actually grow the debt, as you likely know by now, it instead merely authorizes the country to borrow money to pay the bills that it has accrued. But in name and indirect function, it’s linked to government spending, and to a swath of lawmakers, that makes it something to be loathed. The increasing government debt, we have heard for years, is a burden to our children that we can’t afford. Even Trump himself used to harp on the debt with regularity.
January 2009 = $10.6 TRILLION
August 2016 = $19.4 TRILLION pic.twitter.com/dKAVaLfGAJ
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 28, 2016
But here’s the thing. Most Americans don’t really care that much.
Each month, Gallup surveys the country and asks which problem is most important at the moment. In recent months, the percentage of people identifying the debt (they can name more than one) has dwindled from about 5 percent two years ago to 1 or 2 percent.
Part of that is that federal debt is often of more concern to Republicans, and when the president is a Republican, that concern tends to fade a bit. Part of it is also that there are other pressing concerns. Just because the debt isn’t the most important issue doesn’t mean it’s not an important issue. But given how low it polls these days, one could certainly be excused for thinking that it’s not something that people are fretting about to the extent that they’ll take to the phones to demand that Trump and Schumer’s plan be scrapped.
More people say the most important problem is health care, which saw a surge in citations as the debate over replacing Obamacare roiled Washington.
Or race relations, which spiked last summer.
Or terrorism, which hit a high at the time of the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif.
Or immigration, which peaked with Trump’s executive orders.
People aren’t as worried about the economy and jobs as they used to be (also in part a function of shifting attitudes post-election), but they still cite these as the most important issues more than they do the debt.
What’s remarkable is the recent increase in two other concerns. The first is the need to unify the country …
… and the second a big surge in dissatisfaction with how the country is being led.
Last month, 1-in-5 Americans said this was the most important issue facing the country: leadership in Washington. Some of this relates to Trump, too; if you don’t like Trump, this is why you express that concern. But even before he took office, this was a popular complaint.
That casts the Schumer-Trump agreement in another light. Sure, we’re a long way from actually eliminating the debt ceiling. But people are 10 times as likely to say that the government doing its job is more important than the debt anyway.
Put another way: Just the discussion itself may do more to address the most pressing concerns of the American people than what the discussion is meant to address.