Op-Ed

The American Public Wants a Deficit Compromise

William A. Galston

Back in March, Gallup found that while Americans named unemployment and the economy as the most immediate problems, they regarded the federal budget deficit as the most important future problem. Apparently the future is now. On the eve of the president’s deficit commission report, Gallup released a survey that asked a random sample of adults the following question:

If you had to choose, which of these would be the best approach for Congress and the president to take in dealing with the U.S. economy? 

Here are the answers: 

Reducing the deficit and debt

39

Increasing taxes on the wealthy

31

Cutting taxes

23

Increasing stimulus spending        

5

And here is the partisan breakdown:

 

Democrats

Republicans

Independents

Reducing the deficit and debt    

24

49

42

Author

Increasing taxes on the wealthy

52

11

30

Cutting taxes

12

35

23

Increasing stimulus spending

9

3

4

Some points of interest: 

  • Support for additional stimulus has collapsed, even among Democrats.
  • Of the general public’s top two choices, “reducing the deficit and debt” is rejected by three-quarters of Democrats, and “increasing taxes on the wealthy” by nine-tenths of Republicans.
  • Independents track overall sentiment very closely.

The conventional wisdom is that Americans accept the goal of deficit reduction but not the steps needed to achieve it. That may turn out to be right. But Gallup found that fully 75 percent of Americans believe failing to address the costs of Medicare and Social Security would create major economic problems for the United States in the future. When asked what we should do about this, the responses were:

Cut benefits, not raise taxes  

19

Raise taxes, not cut benefits

30

Combination of both benefit cuts and tax increases  

46

There is, it seems, at least a public plurality in favor of the kind of approach that allegedly “elitist” and “out of touch” experts and commissions typically recommend. 

I’m not—repeat, not—claiming that the people are always right. But the midterm election was a massive protest against a political system that seemed not to be paying attention to what the people were saying. Before the major parties decide to default to their entrenched preferences—upper-income tax cuts for Republicans, down-the-line defense of entitlements for Democrats—wouldn’t it be a good idea to try listening a bit more attentively?