How Afraid of the Debt Are Americans?
A few weeks ago, I noted that in a new Gallup poll, Americans ranked terrorism and the national debt evenly — above health care costs, unemployment and climate change — as the most pressing issues for the country. Here’s the chart:
The Gallup poll got a lot of play in the blogosphere, as one could argue it showed that deficit hawks — Blue Dog Democrats and fiscal conservatives, mostly — had succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of Americans and convincing them of the immediate need to start slashing the federal budget. When adding up “extremely serious” and “very serious,” 79 percent of Americans are worried about terrorism and debt, but unemployment still takes the cake, concerning 83 percent. And cooler academic minds argued that one poll does not not indicate a new political reality. Monkey Cage blogger and political scientist Andrew Gelman, for instance, pointed to a good blog post from Ben Somberg on the issue. Somberg argues that this is only one survey — and in many others, Americans report being far more concerned with the immediate issue of crisis levels of unemployment than with the long-term issue of the United States’ unsustainable debt.
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 percent. “Federal budget deficit” got 23 percent.
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 percent. “The deficit and government spending” got 20 percent.
A Fox News poll also in early May got even more dramatic results. “Economy and jobs” topped the priority list with 47 percent, while “deficit, spending” garnered only 15 percent.
A CBS/NYT poll in early April found 27 percent prioritizing “jobs,” 27 percent the “economy” and 5 percent prioritizing “budget deficit/national debt.”
The only recent poll that gives the slightest hint of support…is the USA Today/Gallup poll from late May (not even their newest). 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 percent said extremely serious, 39 percent very serious, and 15 percent somewhat serious. For “unemployment,” 33 percent said extremely serious, 50 percent said very serious and 15 percent said somewhat serious. If you use only the “extremely serious” numbers, you get 7 percent more for the debt. …
And in fact 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 percent, “unemployment/jobs” gets 21 percent and “federal budget deficit” gets 7 percent.
I think that the academics are right here. Poll after poll and survey after survey show that Americans want Congress to help stave off job losses and get people back to work, and would not mind a bit more deficit spending now, particularly if Congress commits to serious debt reduction once the recovery has taken a better hold. But in the screwy logic of Washington, one poll can be stronger than a dozen. Politicians have started trotting out that Gallup survey showing that Americans fear debt and terrorism above all. In a letter to The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein,* Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) used the Gallup poll as justification for holding up the much-whittled-down and much-needed jobs bill currently floundering in the Senate. And Nelson’s intransigence and concern about the deficit are enough to effectively kill that bill — no matter how many other senators and how many millions of Americans support it.
*Full disclosure: In the romantic phrasing of the census, Ezra is my “unmarried domestic partner.”