Analysis: Do Deficits Matter Anymore? Apparently Not To The Public

Source Organization: Pew Research Center


03/14/2006 - Budget season is about to get underway on Capitol Hill, with President Bush and members of Congress searching for ways to reduce the nation's estimated $423 billion deficit. Measured against the size of the economy, that projected shortfall is not record-setting, but coming as it does after a four year period in which deficits added nearly $1.3 trillion to the public debt, its magnitude is of some concern to lawmakers. But there is considerably less urgency associated with this issue than in the 1990s, when runaway deficits dominated the political agenda. And in this regard lawmakers are only reflecting the sentiments of their constituents.

Most Americans do regard deficit reduction as a worthwhile goal - 55% rated it as a "top priority" in Pew's annual policy agenda survey in January. But the deficit simply does not have the same resonance that it did through much of the 1990s (before the budget was actually balanced, albeit briefly). At that time the budget deficit was then viewed as something of a national crisis; not only did significantly higher percentages rate reducing the deficit as a top policy priority (65% in 1994), but the deficit frequently ranked at or near the top of the public's volunteered list of national problems. And in many ways, out-of-control deficits came to symbolize everything that was wrong at the time with Washington and the federal government.

In 1992, political maverick Ross Perot transformed the deficit into a pivotal issue in the presidential campaign - something never done before or since. In the final week of that campaign, fully 40% of voters said reducing the federal budget deficit should be the most important thing for the next president to accomplish - significantly more than the number who cited reducing unemployment (31%) or controlling health care costs (14%). And this was at a time when the unemployment rate stood at about 7%.

Shortly after President Clinton took office, as many Americans named the budget deficit as the nation's most important problem as cited the economy or unemployment. But today, the budget deficit is barely an asterisk on the public's list of most important national problems. In January, the war in Iraq was regarded as the biggest problem facing the nation (cited by 23%), followed by the economy (11%). Just 2% of Americans pointed to the budget deficit as the country's most important problem, a number that has remained stable throughout Bush's presidency.

Why has the budget deficit receded so far in the public's consciousness? Several factors contribute to the lack of public alarm over the deficit.

Read the full analysis Do Deficits Matter Anymore? Apparently Not To The Public on the Pew Research Center Web site. 

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