Deficit Dominant

In its story on the Obama administration’s apparent inability to take strong steps to spur the economy and create jobs, The New York Times adopts an increasingly common explanation: politics just won’t allow more aggressive action.

At a moment when many economists warn that the American economic recovery is likely to be imperiled by prolonged high unemployment and slow growth, President Obama is discovering that the tools available to him last year — a big economic stimulus and action by the Federal Reserve — are both now politically untenable.

The Times isn’t alone in embracing this meme. It’s been popping up all over.

But there’s something a bit too neat, and even incomplete, in that analysis. It’s true that politicians of many stripes appear to be increasingly concerned about the deficit. But the Times and others have been leaving the voting public out of the equation, and, on that front, the priorities are different.

Indeed, as Harold Meyerson pointed out recently, while politicians, pundits and the press may be obsessed with the deficit these days, the general public isn’t in the same place:

Of all the gaps between elite and mass opinion in America today, perhaps the greatest is this: The elites don’t really believe we’re still in recession. Or maybe, they just don’t care.

The Huffington Post’s Arthur Delaney reported this week on a poll that offers stark evidence that the public is far less concerned with the deficit than you might think.

Three-quarters of registered voters think Congress should forget about the deficit and preserve extended unemployment benefits and health insurance subsidies for laid-off workers, according to a new poll commissioned by the National Employment Law Project.

Sure, the National Employment Law Project is in the business of promoting good jobs and worker rights, and helping the unemployed get the benefits and services they need. But the group’s poll isn’t the only one to come back with findings like that.

Meyerson pointed to a Fox News poll last month that found 47 percent of respondents were concerned with the economy and jobs, while just 15 percent said they were worried about the deficit and spending. There are several more polls here, and, while jobs isn’t always the trump card, they show nothing that could be described as widespread public concern about the deficit.

Instead, as Delaney and others point out, the deficit worries are playing out selectively. “House Democrats from conservative districts have said their constituents are antsy about the deficit,” he wrote. On the right, the rise of the Tea Party movement has also brought new attention to government spending.

But that doesn’t mean that most voters have staked out the same position, and the press should be careful not to portray it that way.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at