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Obama administration balances public opinion, political pressure as deficit grows

Saturday, June 20, 2009 | 7:53 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — The solid armor of President Barack Obama's popularity might have a crack — a nearly $2 trillion-sized one.

There's continued and considerable public restiveness over eye-popping federal budget deficits, a potential danger for both Obama's ambitious agenda and his political fortunes.

About $1.3 trillion when Obama took office, this year's deficit now is on track to soar to a record $1.85 trillion after his massive influx of federal spending to stimulate the moribund economy, help struggling homeowners, stabilize frozen credit markets and bail out troubled banks, automakers and insurers.

With those actions, Obama has greatly expanded the government's reach — and, polls say, stoked people's concerns.

From the start, Obama has been sensitive about skyrocketing deficits. He's grown only more so lately.

Shortly after his November election, the president-elect said: "We shouldn't worry about the deficit next year or even the year after" because righting the economy should take precedence. Seven months later, he declared that the deficit problem "keeps me awake at night."

He's mindful of this: The public's lingering wariness over a government plunging deeper into the red threatens to turn into a major liability. As he said in April: "We also have a deficit — a confidence gap — when it comes to the American people."

Recent polls indicate as much.

The nonpartisan Pew Research Center reported Thursday that a majority of Americans — 55 percent — are optimistic that Obama will eventually reduce the budget deficit. But that's a smaller slice than the 61 percent of people who approve of him generally.

And according to a new New York Times/CBS News poll, 60 percent of Americans don't believe the president has a strategy for dealing with the deficit.

Also, 58 percent in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll want Obama to make controlling the deficit a higher priority than a speedy economic recovery. And, nearly half expressed a "great deal" of concern about the increase of government intervention in American life that Obama has overseen, from taking over companies to influencing corporate bonuses and seeking to add government-sponsored insurance to the health care system.

Those growing more wary are mostly political independents, the fickle swing voters who decide close elections. They were critical to the winning coalition Obama assembled last fall and certainly will be critical again if he runs in 2012.

In the nearer term, if voters turn on Obama, it could threaten the Democrats' comfortable majority in Congress and make it difficult for the president to secure approval for his ambitious proposals to overhaul health care, revamp energy policy and institute sweeping economic reforms. Democrats up for re-election in 2010 will gladly attach themselves to Obama if he's successful — but they also will just as quickly distance themselves from him amid failure.

So far, the reservoir of concern hasn't dragged down Obama's overall approval ratings. Despite disappointing economic progress and international turmoil, solid majorities still view the president favorably and larger numbers than in years say the country is on the right track. And, for now at least, people blame former President George W. Bush for the deficit more than they blame Obama, by far.

But the GOP senses a rare opportunity for a potent message against the popular president. Republicans are hammering Obama as a big-spending, big-government, big-deficit leader.

Democrats argue the public's anxiety is temporary.

"We're in an intermediate period where people have seen government take action but they haven't seen the impact yet. They will," said Matt Bennett, vice president of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. "The concerns will drop when it starts looking like the government's action is helping their families and communities."

Not wanting to chance it, the White House repeatedly looks for ways to stress its commitment to reducing both deficits and government intervention.

Obama has promised to cut the deficit by half within his four-year term. He also focuses just as much on the need to drastically cut the expense of health care as he does on expanding coverage. He pledges at every turn that he won't accept any plan that increases the deficit. Expect this to continue as the debate heats up into the summer and fall.

Critics have mocked some of his efforts.

Using his first formal Cabinet meeting in April for a frugality push, Obama gave agency chieftains 90 days to find $100 million in savings. Calculators immediately revealed the figure as a pittance representing just one-twentieth of 1 percent of the federal deficit for March alone.

Last week, he proposed requiring Congress to pay for new spending programs and tax cuts without further exploding deficits. It was quickly criticized as significantly weaker than a "pay-as-you-go" proposal Obama had put forth just a month before that carved out trillions in exceptions and extended the time frame.

It's also not clear the public will buy Obama's pledge that a health care overhaul won't be a budget-buster. The estimated price tag is shockingly huge — $1 trillion over 10 years by Obama's estimation and $1.6 trillion for one bill under serious consideration.

The White House strategy is to take the long view, hoping that pushing ahead with the kind of policies on which Obama campaigned will win him points with voters and that the economy will right itself in time for public ire to fade.

"The president would tell you that he's going to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the American economy," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Some of those things will be ... more popular than others."

 


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