Nobody Really Cares About the Deficit

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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There's a new poll out today from Huffington Post and YouGov that finds that most people don't know that the federal budget deficit is falling (the Congressional Budget Office had new details today about just how far and how fast the deficit is actually shrinking).

This is no surprise. Rhetoric aside, hardly anyone actually cares about federal budget deficits, and I strongly suspect that most people just hear questions about the deficit as general questions about the strength of the economy.

Democrats get bragging rights for being more likely to hit on the correct answer (that the deficit is falling), but they shouldn't get too excited about that, or think it means that Democrats are generally better informed. Instead, it's almost certainly an artifact of the political context: with a Democrat in the White House, Democrats are more likely to believe the economy is improving (and therefore answer that the deficit is falling), while Republicans are more likely to be pessimists (and answer that the deficit is rising). Indeed: there's a well-known finding from the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency that people in general, and Democrats in particular, believed that inflation went up during Reagan's two terms, when in fact inflation collapsed. And unlike the deficit, most people probably did experience inflation directly.

I wish someone would do a study about how people understand "deficits." There's no evidence that anyone votes based on deficits, or changes an opinion about particular politicians based on deficits or even answers questions about policy issues as if they believed deficits were truly important. What people will do is say that they care about deficits, and that they worry about the federal debt. It doesn't seem to affect their opinions or behavior beyond that.

The lesson for politicians in all of this is that they should care about deficits to the extent that they believe addressing them will aid the larger economy, but not beyond that. As both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama learned, no one is going to reward them directly for lower deficits. Indeed, as this poll shows, unless people are generally happy about the direction of the economy, people won't even believe the deficit has come down.

QuickTake Deficit Disconnect

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(Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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