The federal budget deficit will matter more to voters this year than it has in the past decade, according to polls.
While it continues to trail the near-double-digit unemployment rates and overall state of the economy as a leading concern for voters, it is proving central to the 2010 election.
“It used to be that people had vague concerns about the deficit. They knew there was one, but it didn’t seem to really matter,” said Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a likely candidate in the 2012 presidential race. “Now average people outside of politics are zoomed in on it. You go to the grocery store or the dry cleaners or some place and average people, they make comments about the debt, the deficit and spending.”
The rise in deficit worries is exposing the political risk in a key plank of the Democratic agenda: pumping taxpayer money into the economy in the short term, while attempting to keep deficits and debt in check in the long term.
After barely registering for at least a decade, deficits began rising rapidly among voter concerns in 2009. Massive Tea Party protests around the country since early last year helped stir up public attention and unrest.
By February of this year, 11 percent of those polled by Gallup said the federal deficit was the most important issue facing the nation.
That was the highest point since the mid-1990s, when President Clinton vowed to cut the deficit and balance the budget.
In January 1996, 28 percent of those polled by Gallup said the deficit was the top concern.
As Clinton slashed deficits and eventually produced surpluses, voters gradually turned their attention away from the issue. Red ink mounted each of the last seven years of the George W. Bush administration, but voters never appeared to see deficits as a major concern.
In a series of monthly Gallup polls between 2000 and the end of 2008, never more than 5 percent said the federal deficit was the most important problem facing the nation.
The recession and Obama presidency changed that.
Although the recession began in December 2007, voters began significantly changing their opinions a year later, when the financial crisis and worldwide stock market plunges threatened another depression.
Three months into the Obama administration, hundreds of thousands of protesters were raising red flags about Washington spending.
“There wasn’t a tax increase on people, there wasn’t inflation. It was the understanding that spending this much leads to problems — and people were scared,” said Grover Norquist, a conservative activist, in reference to the April 2009 Tax Day protests.
Republican candidates across the country are using the $1.47 trillion deficit to hammer their Democratic opponents and appeal to key reliable voting groups, such as seniors.
“Seniors, they’re worried about the debt, and the younger generation is worried about the jobs,” said Michael Grimm, a Republican House candidate running in New York. “If you’re speaking to a senior or someone that’s just recently retired, they’re worried about the debt and what their children and grandchildren are going to inherit, as far as they’re inheriting debt and a lack of opportunity.”
Blue Dog Democrats in the House and centrists in the Senate have flexed their muscle this year, calling on Congress to pay for new spending so it does not add to the deficit.
Four House Democrats criticized party leadership last week for not taking a clear and strong enough stance on cutting deficits. Their Spending Cuts and Deficit Reduction Working Group is proposing $72 billion in cuts over the next decade.
Republicans, meanwhile, have used the Democrats refusal to write a 2010 budget blueprint to turn the deficit into a campaign cudgel.
The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) has run TV ads on the deficit, including one against Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), chairman of the House Budget Committee.
“No federal budget means no long-term plan to cut spending,” the announcer says in the ad, as a red line shoots upward across the screen. “Ask John Spratt, where is the budget?”
The committee ran a similar spot against Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), who also sits on the House Budget Committee.
“Voters are ready to hold House Democrats accountable in November for racking up trillions of dollars in spending that has failed to create jobs and placed enormous burdens on our children and grandchildren,” Paul Lindsay, an NRCC spokesman, said in a statement.
Spratt, a 14-term incumbent, is facing a tough reelection race against state Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R).
During a fundraising visit to Columbia, S.C., last week, Vice President Joe Biden noted Spratt’s role in the Balanced Budget Agreement of 1997 and blamed the Bush administration for unraveling his good work.
“This man engineered a balanced budget,” Biden told the crowd. “We left George W. Bush on his first day of office with a $270 billion operating surplus. These guys, our opponents, talking about balanced budgets and deficits is like an arsonist lecturing us on fire safety.”
A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) made it clear that the party would try to focus the blame for the growth of the deficit on the GOP.
“When Republicans controlled Congress, they let pay-as-you-go expire and turned a record budget surplus into a record deficit under George W. Bush, and this is the exact same failed economic agenda House Republicans are desperate to bring back,” Ryan Rudominer, a DCCC spokesman, said in a statement.
But as much as Democrats want to assign blame, observers say they’ll need to defend the spending programs they authorized, such as the $787 billion stimulus.
“It’s important for them to stand behind the spending that they did do — for roads, bridges, to keep policemen, firefighters and teachers, tax cuts — to get it away from the abstraction of just being spending increases,” said Michael Ettlinger, a vice president at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “You fought for it, you did it, you own it, you need to defend it.”
Still, senior Obama administration officials are signaling they recognize there is little appetite for more short-term spending.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last week, did not call for additional stimulus money and said the economy needs to transition away from government spending.
“The government can help, but we need to make this transition now to recovery led by private investment,” Geithner said.