The deficit commission has spoken. What do the people think?
Judging by recent opinion polls, the American public is deeply concerned about rising federal debt and its implications for the nation's future prosperity.
But it's harder to tell if US voters would vote to move forward with a plan that reduces the federal deficit by nearly $4 trillion over the next decade, a plan backed Friday by 11 members of President Obama's fiscal commission. After all, those panel members had to weigh the costs and benefits of a complex fiscal plan – and boil it all down to a yes or no decision.
That's very different from the typical poll question.
The conventional wisdom is that the kind of tough decisions that might help fix the deficit – tax hikes or spending cuts in popular programs like Medicare – are toxic choices that could cost politicians their jobs. Opinion polls bear out that risk, but they also at least hint at another political peril, the risk of inaction on debt and deficits.
Consider a USA Today/Gallup poll taken in November, about two weeks after an election in which deficit-bashing tea party voters helped propel Republicans into control of the US House of Representatives.
The poll found that taking steps "reducing the federal budget deficit and national debt" ranked at the top of a handful of possible priorities for the economy, beating out "cutting taxes" or "increasing government stimulus spending." On another question, some 3 in 4 Americans agreed that the rising costs of Medicare and Social Security "will create major economic problems for the US in the next 25 years if no changes are made to them."
Political price of inaction
Members of the bipartisan deficit commission, appointed by Obama and by leaders of both parties in Congress, echoed the notion that inaction could carry a political price as they met this week to agree on a proposed fiscal reform package.
Erskine Bowles, the Democratic co-chair, said that as the commission considered difficult moves – including raising federal tax revenue and spending cuts that extend even to cherished entitlements – he has been getting far more favorable feedback than criticism from the public.
"Don't wimp out," he said, is the message he hears most frequently from US citizens.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois described hearing both outrage and praise in response to his decision to support the commission's plan. In a commission meeting Friday, he recounted a flurry of criticism from people inside the Washington Beltway, worried that he was selling out Democrats' progressive ideals. But he also told of a simple email message that arrived from his son: "Thank you."
For Durbin and for conservative Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, "yes" votes were about the big picture – a commitment that the debt problem needs Congress's full attention – not about endorsing every element of the commission blueprint. (To many Republicans, it involves too much in the way of tax revenue. To many Democrats, the plan squeezes spending programs too hard.)
The USA Today/Gallup poll suggested that many Americans see things in a similar way. Not only are they very worried about deficits, they see tough choices and sacrifices as the solution. Asked what to do about rising Social Security and Medicare costs, 46 percent called for a combination of tax hikes and benefit cuts, 30 percent said to increase taxes only, and 19 percent said just to cut benefits.
Murky poll results
Public attitudes are complex and often ambivalent, however, varying from poll to poll and sometimes within the same poll. Where government stimulus spending was a low priority in the USA Today/Gallup poll, a survey by the Pew Research Center, also in November, found a large minority of the public – 43 percent – supporting "spending more to help the economy recover."
And, when forced in a CBS News poll to pick a top priority for the nation, the clear leader, with 56 percent support, was "economy and jobs," a choice that seems to imply support for stimulus spending. Only 4 percent of respondents to that poll picked "Budget deficit/National debt" as the top national priority.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll, which allowed multiple responses, may help clarify the mood of the public, which wants both remedies: 72 percent see "jobs" as a crucial item for Congress to focus on this year, and 57 percent see the "budget deficit" as a crucial priority, putting it second of seven options in that survey question.
Do Americans want to see Congress forge a bipartisan compromise?
Again, the polls show some mixed feelings. In a Pew Research Center poll in November, 42 percent of Americans said they most admire political leaders who "compromise," while 45 percent said they most admire leaders who "stick to their positions."
All this suggests that, when it comes to addressing America's fiscal challenges, there are vital roles to be played by both the public and politicians. Voters, as always, will send signals to Washington. But leadership by polticians can also play a crucial role in steering the national debate.
"Only you ... can right this listing ship," fiscal commission co-chair Alan Simpson (R) told the panel members who hold seats in Congress. He said it's up to elected lawmakers, guided by "principles and patriotism," to navigate beyond special-interest lobbying and head off the risk of a fiscal crisis.
Polls can show a fickle public, with voters saying they want a problem fixed as long as they don't have to pay for it. But in one AP/CNBC poll last month, Americans also showed what Bowles and Simpson would call a dose of realism. Some 79 percent said some services would have to be cut in order to balance the federal budget, and 65 percent said some taxes will have to be increased to reach that goal.