Washington Post Alternate Reality: Public More Concerned About Deficit Than Jobs or Economy Overall
A stunning front-page article in Saturday's Washington Post moves the paper firmly into conservatives' dream universe on deficit policy. "Stimulus plans run up against deficit fears" by Lori Montgomery serves up this whopper:
If Congress doesn't provide additional stimulus spending, economists inside and outside the administration warn that the nation risks a prolonged period of high unemployment or, more frightening, a descent back into recession. But a competing threat -- the exploding federal budget deficit -- seems to be resonating more powerfully in Congress and among voters.There you have it: the budget deficit is an issue that's resonating more with voters than the issues of high unemployment or the possibility of further economic downturn generally. It's a trendy right-wing meme of the last few months, but here it is in the news pages of the Washington Post.
But is this notion supported by what the polling actually says? No. Not even close.
A Pew Research / National Journal poll from early June asked "Which of the following national economic issues worries you most?" Number one was "job situation" with 41%. "Federal budget deficit" got 23%.
An NBC / Wall Street Journal poll from early May asked "Please tell me which one of these items you think should be the top priority for the federal government." Sure enough, "job creation and economic growth" won with 35%. "The deficit and government spending" got 20%.
A Fox News poll also in early May got even more dramatic results. "Economy and jobs" topped the priority list with 47%, while "deficit, spending" garnered only 15%.
A CBS / NYT poll in early April found 27% prioritizing "jobs", 27% the "economy" and 5% prioritizing "budget deficit/national debt."
The only recent poll that gives the slightest hint of support for the Post's thesis is the USA Today / Gallup poll from late May (not even their newest). Participants were asked "How serious a threat to the future well-being of the United States do you consider each of the following." For "federal government debt", 40% said extremely serious, 39% very serious, and 15% somewhat serious. For "unemployment", 33% said extremely serious, 50% said very serious, and 15% said somewhat serious. If you use only the "extremely serious" numbers, you get 7% more for the debt. Greg Marx at CJR makes the case that this poll, nevermind its headline, should not be read as some sort of overwhelming evidence of a shifted public view.
And in fact a newer Gallup poll, from a week ago, asking "What do you think is the most important problem facing the country today?" finds the economy and jobs on top. "Economy in general" gets 28%, "Unemployment/Jobs" gets 21%, and "Federal budget deficit" gets 7%.
The Washington Post's own polls have not asked a question that directly addresses the matter.
If the Post -- and one of its reporters most focused on deficit issues -- really thinks the public cares more about the deficit than about the jobs and the state of the economy generally, this is worrying news.
Update: follow-up and analysis on this from Atrios, Digby, Andrew Gelman, Annie Lowrey, Dean Baker, Ezra Klein and FiveThirtyEight. Thanks for the links!
Update 6/22: NYT has a new poll in today's paper. Economy gets 20%, jobs gets 20%, and budget deficit gets 5%.
Update 6/23: Jon Cohen from the Post argues that the paragraph in question means to be saying that the deficit resonating "more powerfully" means, essentially, increasingly powerfully. In other words, that the sentence is about a trend over time, not a comparison of the public's concerns over the debt with the public's concerns about jobs/economy.
Look, I can't divine what is going on in anyone's heads. What I can say is I just can't imagine very many readers reading the paragraph that way. If that's what they actually meant, there are a million ways they could have written the sentence to say so. Read the paragraph over a few times, and the surrounding paragraphs too, and see what you think.
Update 6/24: FAIR: Inventing a Nation of Deficit Hawks; WaPo, NYT misread polls on public and spending
Update 6/28: My follow-up, Post Softens Language on Deficit; Meanwhile, AP Serves up a Whopper of its Own