Floundering on the economy

And so the budget battle begins. President Obama has laid out a modest approach to deficit reduction in his budget — one that ignores, or at least fails to embrace, many of the recommendations of his bipartisan budget commission. When grilled on this subject by the media this week, his response was classic Obama: You are all too impatient; nothing gets done quickly or easily in this town; the budget is a process. 

His answer did not satisfy the press or Republicans and even left some Democrats underwhelmed. The Washington Post opined, “The president punted.” The Los Angeles Times found his proposals a “remarkably tame response.” The Wall Street Journal declared that he “ignores almost entirely the recommendations” of his own deficit commission. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman, charges that it “spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much” — a refrain we can expect Republicans to repeat in the weeks, possibly months, ahead. Even Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) who leads the Senate Budget Committee, complains that “we need a much more robust package of deficit and debt reduction.”

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In conversations and focus groups and polls from around the country, I’ve heard serious doubts about the ability of Congress or the administration to deal with the deficit and the economy. Participants intuitively believe Republicans will do a better job of handling the economy, jobs and unemployment. Voters give high priority to cutting the deficit and balancing the budget. Obviously, the Republicans benefit from that concern.

But what I’m hearing is not all good news for the GOP. First, although cutting the deficit is important, a healthy majority of voters seem more concerned about issues that touch their lives personally — jobs and the economy. Second, the more people learn about how the GOP plans to reduce the deficit, the less they like. Those two findings suggest the president has a point — that as the debate sorts itself out, he is not as vulnerable as those inside the Beltway seem to think.

Americans continue to be united by a concern over their economic future. The phrase “in these tough economic times” is a common introductory clause to the thoughts they share. They all believe that the “middle class,” “working families” and “the elderly” are at risk. They empathize, often seeing themselves as part of one or more of these groups — in the case of the elderly, everyone knows it is only a matter of time until they are part of the demographic. While they want the government to spend less, they are loath to give up the services government provides to their fellow Americans — especially in education, healthcare and Social Security.

Most Americans believe that there is a lot of waste in government spending and that the cuts should begin there. They see no reason to grant subsidies to special interests or carve out tax breaks for the wealthy — and the wealthy is pretty much anyone who makes more money than they do.

Americans want their president and Congress to get very serious about deficit and spending reductions — but strongly resist cutting services they see as vital to getting us there. They still see special interests having far too much influence with the government — especially the federal government — and want to hold those who make and enforce the laws more accountable to the people.

So what is the message the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress should take to the American people? Stan Greenberg’s research for Democracy Corps seems to me to have got it right, concluding, “We must start by cutting wasteful and unnecessary spending before we cut middle-class programs, we need to close tax loopholes, end subsidies for oil companies and make government more accountable to people.” (Many readers might note that I frequently quote Greenberg’s polls. I have never worked with the firm and know him only slightly, but he is often on message.) I’ve heard almost exactly those same words from independent and moderate voters all over the country. It is a message that will resonate far more with voters than the president’s defense of “the process.”

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com