DC Politicians Beware: Voters Want the Employment Crisis Fixed -- If You Mess with Social Security or Deficits, You're Toast

Even while the politicians and pundits keep telling us that the federal deficit is a huge and pressing problem, a new public opinion survey finds that a majority of American voters have their own view of what deficits mean to our economy, and how best to deal with our economic woes. They favor progressive strategies for bringing the deficit beast to heel, and a healthy majority rejects the Right’s preferred course of balancing the budget on the backs of the elderly and infirm.

But the survey, conducted by the Dem-leaning polling firm Greenberg, Quinlan and Rosner (GQR), also found that the Right's campaign to stoke anxiety about the deficit has had an effect. The researchers concluded that voters in their sample are concerned first and foremost with jobs, then with jobs, and they’re also worried about jobs -- but many Americans are anxious about the deficit, in the near-term, because they believe it "slows job growth.” 

That means that progressives have to strike a delicate balance -- when they dismiss concerns about high deficits out of hand, conservative messaging wins. When asked the question cold -- without context -- more people in the survey agreed that “The danger of putting the burden of debt on future generations by not focusing enough on deficit reduction” outweighed “The danger of throwing more people out of work and extending the recession by focusing too much on deficit reduction.”

But addressing the budget gap ultimately comes down to a question of priorities. When progressives acknowledge that large deficits are in fact problematic over the long haul, their approach to getting the shortfalls under control is far more popular than the alternatives pushed by Big Business and its conservative allies.

By a 52-42 margin, more voters believed that cutting government spending is the best approach to kick-starting the moribund economy than investing “more to put people to work, develop new industries, and help businesses grow in expanding, new areas.” It’s a testament to the power of the corporate message machine, but it’s also a false choice. As economist John Irons noted last week, "Deficit reduction and short-term job creation are not competing priorities. Job creation is needed today to ensure a strong economy and a solid tax base tomorrow: you can't reach reasonable budget targets without a strong and rapid recovery, and you won’t get a strong recovery if you pursue austerity too early." Americans appear to understand that. When asked a slightly different question that combined a plan for deficit reduction over the long-term with immediate efforts to get the economy going (“While we need a plan for deficit reduction, our highest priority should be…”) the numbers turned right around, with 51 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed.

Respondents were offered 11 different proposals for reducing the deficit over the long-term -- everything from raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans to establishing a national sales tax. Across the board, the most popular proposals were progressive in nature; eliminating tax breaks for companies that outsource American jobs scored highest, followed by a windfall tax on Wall Street. Eliminating the cap that limits Social Security taxes to the first $107,000 people earn ranked third. “The least successful message,” wrote the authors, “focused on broad spending cuts even including Social Security.”

Contrary to what the Washington Post’s editorial page tells us on an almost daily basis, slashing and burning Social Security and Medicare is still a “third rail” of American politics. Three of the four options for which voters held the least enthusiasm were raising the retirement age for Social Security, upping the age of eligibility for Medicare and replacing Medicare with a voucher program -- all proposals being pushed by various Republican lawmakers. Fewer than one in three responded positively to the Right’s vision for “entitlement reform” and other deep spending cuts.

Having good information is important. When asked whether they favored “more funding to the states to prevent further service cuts and layoffs” a modest majority (53-42) said yes. But when they were informed that without assistance from the feds, an estimated 300,000 public sector workers would lose their jobs next year, the margin jumped to a 35 point spread (65-30).

Voters also tend to have a reasonably good, if imperfect sense of what’s creating all this red ink. When asked what were the biggest contributors to the deficit, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, “bailouts of the big banks and auto industry,” and “lobbyists” sucking from the public teat scored highest. The reality is that the leading contributor to the deficit is the recession itself -- tanking tax revenues that hit just when people needed unemployment benefits and other aid. But only 5 percent of respondents named it as one of the two biggest budget-busters.

About an equal number of people surveyed identified Bush’s tax cuts and Obama’s stimulus package as being among the biggest culprits. That’s true today, but looking forward, the stimulus funds are dwindling and the Bush cuts, if renewed, would be the single greatest contributor to high deficits over the next decade. By a 54-41 margin, Americans favor letting the cuts that affect people making more than $250K expire.

The bad news is that while a majority of Americans favor progressive ideas for addressing the budget gap and stimulating the economy, Obama and the Dems are doing a poor job convincing Americans that these are ideas they stand for. Overall, the survey found that while likely voters support proposals to grapple with the deficit over the long term and deal with the jobs crisis now, they trust Republicans over Dems to deal with the economy by a 10-point margin, and the deficit by a 12-point gap. 

If they don’t do significantly better, that "failure to communicate" is going to prove painful for the Dems come October. GQR only sampled people who had voted in the 2008 election. They then divided the group into those who are likely to vote in 2010, and “drop-out voters” who intend to sit out the midterms. What they found confirmed the “enthusiasm gap” between the Democratic and Republican bases identified by a host of polls this cycle. In contrast to the views of those who intend to vote, drop-off voters trust the Dems to handle the deficit (46-29) and the economy (43-32), and to help small businesses get ahead (43-31). On the generic Congressional ballot, likely voters now favor the GOP candidate by a 7-point margin, while those who say they won’t vote in November would go for the Democrat by a 21-point spread.

The take-away is that if the Dems want to avert a disaster this fall, they’ve got to win back some of the center and re-energize their base. The best way to do that is to offer a progressive vision for reining in the deficit over the long haul, while emphasizing that “austerity measures” must take a backseat to aggressive efforts to get our economy going now and in the immediate future.


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