Inventing a Nation of Deficit Hawks

Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress like to argue that public concern over federal budget deficits makes it impossible to pass a new round of job-creating stimulus spending.  And corporate media like to echo these sentiments, despite there being little evidence that citizens are as concerned about these issues as inside-the-Beltway deficit hawks.

In the June 21 New York Times, John Harwood wrote, “The same polls that show voters upset about joblessness also show them upset about deficit spending, which Democratic leaders consider their only short-term method of reducing joblessness.”

The Washington Post (6/19/10) put the same narrative on its front page under the headline, “Election-Year Deficit Fears Stall Obama Stimulus Plan.”  Reporter Lori Montgomery acknowledged that many economists see a greater threat looming if the government doesn’t provide additional stimulus.  But, she countered, “a competing threat — the exploding federal budget deficit — seems to be resonating more powerfully in Congress and among voters.”  The piece went on to note that the first stimulus package does not appear to poll very well, and that voters “are sending mixed signals about whether Washington should spend more on jobs or start minding the national debt.”

But most recent polls show far more public concern over unemployment than deficit spending or the federal debt.  As FAIR noted (FAIR Blog, 5/19/10), recent surveys from CBS/New York Times and NBC/Wall Street Journal asked voters to rank problems facing the country.  Unemployment was more important by a spread of 49 percent to 5 percent in the CBS/NYT poll, 35 percent to 20 percent in the NBC/WSJ survey, and 47 percent to 15 percent from a recent Fox poll.  Blogger Ben Somberg raised similar questions (6/19/10) in response to the Post story.

And with all the media hysteria over federal spending and the deficit, the public seems to have a somewhat muddled view of why it’s even an issue.  A recent Pew/National Journal survey (6/17-20/10) that found 74 percent of respondents believed that — contrary to what most economists would tell you — “budget cuts to reduce the federal deficit” would help create jobs.  The same poll found similarly wide majorities seeing job creation from additional spending on public works programs, more aid to state and local governments, and cutting business and income taxes — all policies that would increase the deficit.  Surveys in which the public ranks these conflicting priorities consistently give the deficit little emphasis.

So when the Post begins a May 19 story, “With voters up in arms over the mounting federal debt,” where is the evidence for that characterization?  Or for Times writer Matt Bai‘s suggestion (6/17/10) that “the federal deficit has emerged as a chief concern for voters”?  Or when the Times reported (6/18/10) that the Senate’s failure to pass a spending bill was evidence that lawmakers, “reacting to rising public concern, have grown reluctant to vote for measures that add to federal red ink.”

The evidence certainly isn’t in the polls.  One recent Gallup survey (6/17/10), for example, found that 60 percent of the public approved of “additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy.”  One of the few polls to ask people to choose between jobs and the deficit directly (CBS/NYT, 4/5-12/10) found 50 percent agreeing that “the federal government should spend money to create jobs, even if it means increasing the budget deficit,” with 42 percent choosing deficit-reduction over job-creating stimulus.

If such polls were taken seriously, news reports would state that politicians were bucking public opinion in order to pursue fiscal austerity.  But outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have turned reality on its head.

ACTION: Please ask the New York Times and Washington Post to stop suggesting that the public cares more about the federal budget deficit than job creation.

Arthur Brisbane
New York Times Public Editor

Andrew Alexander
Ombud, Washington Post

This alert was issued by FAIR on 24 June 2010.

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