It comes as no surprise that President Obama received a sizeable bump in public opinion after the announcement of the death of Usama bin Laden on May 1. A New York Times/CBS News poll shows an 11-point jump in approval to 57 percent (up from 46 percent last month). And the Washington Post/Pew Research Center found similar gains, with 56 percent approving of President Obama, up from 47 percent.
This temporary uptick in favorability, however, doesn’t change the fundamentals when it comes to the state of the U.S. economy. There's no doubt that the economy is still the leading concern for Americans as we move toward the 2012 presidential election. But measuring public opinion on the budget crisis and economic policy remains difficult because the public often responds to polling questions in contradictory ways.
A poll by the Economist magazine conducted April 9-12 found that 91 percent of adults consider the budget deficit a somewhat or very important issue. Still, the same poll revealed that Americans remain reluctant to make the serious cuts in government programs that are necessary to restore the nation’s fiscal solvency – only 27 percent would support a decrease in spending. And when respondents were asked if they would be willing to accept cuts to spending that “benefits people like you,” only 20 percent of Americans said “definitely” yes.
Big-spending advocates argue this inconsistency means Americans really don’t care all that much about closing our country's deficit gap.
A more honest explanation, however, is that Americans’ confusion about the budget and the economy is a function of a decades-long leadership deficit. Politicians and others in the “opinion class” have been playing make-believe about the nation’s financial situation for years. It is unrealistic to expect that taxpayers will fully accept and understand the nature of the significant changes that must be made to get the deficit and debt under control when lawmakers in Washington are not being forthcoming about what has to be done.
Many Americans are unclear about the right approach to handling the ballooning deficit, in part, because we have a president who is playing politics with the issue. Mr. Obama’s decisions are too often haphazard and disjointed. He released a budget in February, only to take it back with a different deficit reduction plan in April – a perfect example of how the White House often speaks out of both sides of its mouth.
On one hand, Team Obama admits there's a problem and concedes that spending needs to be restrained, but their solution is simply higher taxes and more spending. And by calling for taxes on “the rich,” the president is not only reneging on the agreement he made in December to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, he is also misleading the American people into thinking that repeal would be enough to eliminate the deficit.
The only way to roll back the confusion is through greater leadership from lawmakers, non-profits, and the media, who can help clarify both the problems and the solutions. As America's fiscal crisis deepens, the conversation must be sharpened. With enough leaders speaking out about the size and impact of the fiscal crisis, as well as the trade-offs of various solutions, the American public is more than up to putting our collective house in order.
Education will eventually mean that more Americans will support spending cuts; still, it does not mean the confusion will be easy to dispel. After all, Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) was speaking out about earmarks for 20 years before the public groundswell against them was strong enough to spark action by Congress.
While it is difficult to compete with the volume of the presidential bully pulpit, organizations like CAGW and public officials like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have tried to educate the public about the causes of and solutions to our fiscal problems. Rep. Ryan's budget, which passed the House by a vote of 235-193, cuts $6.2 trillion in federal spending over the next 10 years, doesn't raise taxes, and reduces the deficit to under $1 trillion in fiscal year 2012. It is a heartening show of leadership and a good start to putting the country back on a path of recovery and growth.
Rep. Ryan is not alone. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has turned a spotlight on the dishonesty of the budget debate; many of the supposedly “radical” cuts in the last budget deal were, as he wrote in The American Spectator earlier this month, “actually a rescission of spending authority for projects and programs that the government wasn’t going to need anyway.” In other words, they weren’t cuts at all.
Criticism is not coming just from Republican lawmakers. Freshman Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) denounced President Obama’s “failure to lead” on deficit reduction and in late March told an audience at the University of Charleston that he would not go along blindly with his party’s position on the budget, stressing “we cannot ignore the fiscal Titanic of our national debt and deficit.” The West Virginia senator put his words into action, joining more than 60 other senators from both parties in sending a letter to the president, urging him to play a more prominent role in finding a sensible solution to the nation’s debt crisis.
On April 19,The Washington Post editorial board pointedly criticized the president and Democrats who are fighting for a “clean” debt ceiling bill free from any spending cuts, explaining that the vote, “offers an opportunity to accomplish some real deficit reduction.”
It is comforting to know there are leaders on both the left and the right who are willing to be honest about the need for extensive and fundamental spending and tax reform. But winning the American public over to the side of reason and responsibility is going to require widespread and consistent communication of a clear message. And, right now, with the president and his aides trying to sell another fantasy plan to solve our deficit problems by raising taxes on the wealthy (even more), they will not be getting that clarity from the White House.
While Americans are applauding the president for his action in Pakistan last week, their support does not easily translate into other policy areas. Unless the president can show clear, consistent leadership on the economy, his bump in approval ratings will be just another flash in the pan.
Tom Schatz is president of Citizens Against Government Waste.