A nation of Herbert Hoovers

New polling indicates Americans are suddenly deficit hawks. Didn't they learn anything from the Great Depression?

Published June 18, 2009 5:37PM (EDT)

As if expertly coordinated by Republican strategists, both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal announced poll results on Thursday suggesting that the public has growing doubts about how President Obama is handling the economy.

One can take issue with how the newspapers are interpreting their data (which comes from two different polls), but let's accept, for now, the proposition that the surveys are correct on one key issue: The importance of deficit reduction.

The New York Times reports that its NYT/CBS poll finds:

Americans are alarmed by the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been doled out to boost the economy. A majority said the government should instead focus on reducing the federal deficit.

The Journal's WSJ/ABC polls echoes the Times:

A solid majority -- 58 percent -- said that the president and Congress should focus on keeping the budget deficit down, even if takes longer for the economy to recover.

Keynesians everywhere are wincing. Deficit reduction during an economic contraction, they will argue, runs the risk of deepening the contraction, causing greater human suffering, and prolonging the point at which the economy starts to recover. That's what happened in 1929, and we really don't want to go there again. There's also a good chance that a fiscal austerity regime could, in the long run, even make future deficits bigger -- because an even weaker economy means less tax revenue and greater social welfare spending (if the government continues to do things like pay for unemployment benefits.)

Our best evidence for this, say the Keynesians, comes from both the outset of the Great Depression, and midway through Roosevelt's second term, in 1937, when the president gave in to deficit hawks and attempted to rein in government spending, a move that is widely seen as crippling the recovery that had at long last gotten under way.

To most Americans, however, that's ancient history, and it's not the kind of thing you hear too often on the cable news talk shows. What you do hear, every single day, from every Republican in Congress and every right-wing pundit, is an unceasing reiteration of rabid concern about Obama's big spending. The poll numbers would seem to indicate that GOP talking-points discipline is having an effect. (Although the data is contradictory, as the polling also shows that most Americans blame the Bush administration for the deficit, and not Obama.)

Both polls also put the popularity of the Republican Party at a historic low, which makes the effectiveness of their propaganda a real puzzler. The Times "found that the Republican Party is viewed favorably by only 28 percent of those polled, the lowest rating ever in a New York Times/CBS News poll." The WSJ poll found only 25 percent of respondents approved of the GOP.

So is this a case of absorbing the message while dismissing the messenger? Or is there something a lot more simple going on? Individual Americans, by and large, are hacking away at their credit card debt, cutting back on spending, and saving at rates not witnessed in over a decade. Hungover from a wild binge, they're doing their best to clean up and get their act together. The government, on the other hand, is spending more than ever before, and that just doesn't jibe psychologically with the current mindset.

One wonders what the poll numbers would be like if Obama had decided not to pass a stimulus bill or rescue the automakers. I'd bet his negatives would be much worse than they are now. But that's entirely speculative. His job right now is to make the case for why his strategy makes long-term sense. It's not an easy argument to make, especially given the concerted yowling from the GOP and the factions within his own party. But if he wants to continue pursuing his energy and health care agenda, he's going to have to get a lot more proactive. Or so say the polls.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Federal Deficit How The World Works Polling U.s. Economy