When Pew surveyed Americans about their top policy priorities in January 2001, two issues that are prominent today didn't make the cut. No one was particularly concerned about terrorism, eight months prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. And no one was concerned about the federal budget deficit — because there wasn't one.
In the wake of the 2008-09 recession, as the government began spending in an effort to soften the blow of the stumbling economy, the deficit spiked— as did concerns about it. But according to Pew's most recent survey, conducted this month, concern about the deficit has fallen to levels last seen when Barack Obama first took office and the deficit was leaving the launchpad.
That fall began a bit after the deficit itself started to become smaller. Polling has repeatedly found that Americans didn't know that the deficit had been falling, which may be why concern continued to rise as the deficit continued to decline.
Part of it, too, is based on partisanship. Republicans are much more worried about the deficit than Democrats — at least since Obama took office and the deficit ballooned. When Bush was president, Democrats were more worried about the issue.
Even on Capitol Hill, members of Congress are less concerned about the deficit than they used to be. A search of Capitol Words shows that members of both parties are talking about the issue far less than they used to.
It's possible that this decline is also driving the decline of public concern. Most Americans don't pay much attention to what the deficit is doing on a regular basis but may hear politicians and elected officials worrying about it.
The federal deficit and the federal debt aren't the same thing of course. Donald Trump has spoken repeatedly about debt on the campaign trail, since even if the deficit is getting smaller, any deficit contributes to a rising debt. As deficits fall, though, the debt itself grows more slowly.
This respite in concern about the deficit may be short-lived. For each of the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office predicts, the deficit will grow.
Meaning that a few years from now, the growth of the deficit will likely be a renewed concern of the public — and politicians.