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Public Opinion On The Deficit: Not Either/Or, But Now Or Later

by Scott Bittle

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

There's been a lot written in the media and the blogosphere about surveys on whether the public is more worried about the economy or the federal deficit and most of what's written only sees half the story.

Public concern about the deficit is rising, some argue. But jobs are more important, others say. Both are true. The distinction that's often being missed is between the public's short-term and long-term concerns.

There's no question the economy is a much higher priority than the national debt and the budget deficit for the public right now. Let's take, for example, the CBS News/New York Times poll released yesterday. A plurality (38 percent) say the economy and jobs are the most important problem facing the country today, followed by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (13 percent), heath care (6 percent), the budget deficit/national debt (5 percent) and the Gulf oil spill (also 5 percent).

Other surveys have found similar results, and that's not surprising. In April, Gallup found one in five Americans fear losing their job over the next year.

But the public also thinks the deficit could be the most important problem in the future. When Gallup asked what the most important problem might be 25 years from now, the most popular answer given was the federal budget deficit (14 percent), closely followed by the economy and the environment (both 11 percent). That's the first time the deficit has led the list, and the first time it's drawn more than 5 percent responses, according to Gallup.

Among policymakers, of course, the debate over the past several weeks has been whether the federal government needs to keep spending to stimulate the economy or should start pulling back to control the deficit. Both sides are treating it as an either-or choice, and citing surveys to prove their point.

Yet a number of economists and policymakers have argued that there's no contradiction between the two choices, and that we could take steps to control the long-term fiscal problem while continuing a stimulus plan now. The surveys do show that there's a difference in the public's perception of the biggest problem now (the economy) and what could be the biggest problem in the future, our unsustainable federal budget. Both of those problems are very real and the fact that the public sees both of them as real could be a huge asset for policymakers as they grapple with solutions.


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