NYT/CBS poll buries Obama's deficit vulnerability

Barack Obama celebrations at the White House

Americans are feeling better and better about the economy, a new poll shows — a real shot in the arm for President Obama’s massive efforts to restore calm to the economy. But buried in the details of the recently released New York Times/CBS survey are signs that the White House may have trouble pushing through its ambitious and expensive agenda on health,
energy, and education.

Even while in the throes of a global financial crisis, Americans are in a statistical dead heat on whether to stimulate the economy by spending more money even if that means deepening the deficit (45%) or whether the Administration should focus on reducing the budget and the national debt (46%). Further, a whopping 63% of those participating in the poll said they were “very concerned” that the growing debt load would “create hardships for future generations of Americans.” Another 28% said they were “somewhat concerned” about leaving a legacy of debt. In other words, 91% of those polled aren’t comfortable with the ballooning national deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office projects will reach $9.3 trillion between 2010 and 2019, $2.3 trillion more than White House estimates.

The NYTimes didn’t quite pull together the implication of those numbers. The focus: Democrats are up, Republicans down, and an impressive two-thirds say they approve of President Obama’s job performance. It’s a Sally Field moment: After winning a second Oscar for her role in the 1984 movie Places in the Heart, the actress declared:”You like me, right now, you like me!”

Right now a sweeping majority really like Mr. Obama. But nearly half of those surveyed — 48% to be precise — said they would prefer smaller government with fewer services; 41% said they would prefer bigger government with more services. So even Obama can’t count on a sea of love to guarantee him an open-ended line of credit to fund his programs.. Americans are clearly divided over how to handle some of the biggest issues before this nation. Obama may soon find himself on the receiving end of the credit crunch if not a one-two punch to his standings if he doesn’t show greater concern for the national deficit. The administration should say “thank you” for the general vote of confidence but also take note that adulation for Oscar winners is fleeting. It tends to last right now and not much longer.


8 thoughts on “NYT/CBS poll buries Obama's deficit vulnerability

  1. Historically, when there is such divergence between Presidential popularity and support for hisagenda; something’s gotta give. Stay tuned.

  2. I don’t think there is nearly as much cognitive dissonance as you suggest. When directly asked “are you worried about the deficit?” of course people are at least somewhat worried. But, when asked to rank economic concerns, (question 10) 38% said the economic crisis, 2% picked the government deficit.

    Of course public opinion can be fickle and may turn on Obama (has any president sustained approval ratings this high for long?) but there is actually a lot in the poll that I think Obama would find comforting. Most importantly, the public has sensible expectations about the economy — nearly 90% expect the recession to last another 12 months or more. That suggests they will be reasonably patient if the recession does last that long. Second, there are other questions (taxes, health care) where there seems to be pretty strong support for what he is doing.

    With nearly 100 substantive questions, there will always be nuances. The article did mention the very data you raise, though admittedly in about the 18th paragraph. I would agree that the tone of the article was somewhat too upbeat and they should have raised concerns somewhat earlier, but I don’t think they are seriously misrepresenting the poll results.

    Overall, the poll shows public opinion strongly supporting Obama and his policies. That is no guarantee it will be sustained, but it is the right picture right now.

  3. Jonathan,
    Thanks for the careful reading of the poll. You make an interesting point. In my view Question 10 focuses on what people are focused on right now (“today”) and the No. 1 concern is jobs. But what I sensed from the other data is the emergent worry, i.e., once we’ve figured out how to get out of this mess, what’s the next big problem. The Times story captured very well overall the sentiment of the moment. I was trying to tease out what’s next and what it means for Obama’s agenda.

  4. “Right now a sweeping majority really like Mr. Obama. But nearly half of those surveyed — 48% to be precise — said they would prefer smaller government with fewer services; 41%”

    Too general a question to have much meaning. When you break it down to specific issues the data in most polls shows the American people support greater government involvement in health care, the ecology, and education. Sorry but your post comes across as nothing more than a rational for a GOP talking point.

    I’m more than willing to bet that if you asked a question like “does the size of govt matter to you as long as the govt is efficient and does what it’s supposed to do.” You’d see quite a different response.

      • Phil,
        The message I got from the poll is that the public would not enthusiastically support Obama’s agenda. It’s just too expensive. He needs to prioritize and figure out away to keep a lid on government spending. The public may like his ideals but they aren’t giving him unlimited credit to implement them. It’s a tough position, but he wanted it!

      • I totally agree with that. And this goes beyond the whole “who is responsible for recession” argument. I think the public, when they really sit down and think about it, have a hard time accepting something so large and expensive that has been pushed through so quickly. Ideals and reality are two totally different things, and I think President Obama is facing a difficult time balancing the two.

        Granted, I didn’t vote for him, but as you said, he wanted the position, tough as it is, and I think the position deserves respect. I’m not a right-wing nut (or maybe I am-I suppose time will tell), but I have a problem with anyone who wants to get in the middle of what is private business. We forget that banks (and car companies, large as they are) are businesses too, out to make money like any other business. I think they government gets a little too close for comfort when it starts dictating what a business can and cannot do (eg: GM’s CEO getting ousted). I guess that was the point I was trying to make-if the question was posed “Should the government step in to ‘fix’ the economy at the expense of our freedom to choose how we do business?”, I think we might get some different answers as to the size of the government. I’m not sure spending so much in such a short amount of time can be deemed efficient, though time will tell on this as well, I suppose.

    • “if you asked a question like “does the size of govt matter to you as long as the govt is efficient and does what it’s supposed to do.” You’d see quite a different response.”
      Isn’t that bit like saying, if the government promises to do a really, really good job, it it okay to do whatever it wants? I’m not sure that that’s meaningful.
      Obama made the point in his Inaugural address that the size of the government isn’t the issue but whether or not its role is useful. I agree, that is the essence. At the heart of that comment is a deep philosophical issue: What exactly can government do that is useful and when should it step back?
      I find it interesting how questions were phrased. For example, the poll asked if the government should spend and deepen the deficit to rescue the economy. Or should gov’t aim to reduce the deficit. Some economists would argue that reducing the deficit is in fact one way to rescue the economy. But the question wasn’t phrased that way.

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