Americans Understand Red Ink

Americans say we’re losing more ground on the federal budget deficit than on any other major problem. Congress needs to keep that in mind.

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The American public remains skeptical that our government is making much progress on solving long-standing problems—and I’m not just talking about Iraq. As the February data in the first chart from the Pew Research Center show, the public has a sense we’re losing ground rather than making progress on a wide range of problems, including the environment, education, health care, immigration, jobs, and the gap between rich and poor.

But note what tops the list: the budget deficit. By a greater than three-to-one margin, Americans believe we’re losing ground (64 percent) rather than making progress (20 percent) on this critical problem. Congress should keep the public’s concerns in mind as debate unfolds around the fiscal year 2008 budget resolution in the coming months.

What’s the solution? Maybe back to the future. Note the trendline in the second chart on the question about making progress or losing ground on the budget deficit.

Pessimism started out high in the 1990’s but actual progress in reducing the budget deficit persuaded the public to be more optimistic as time went on—with good reason as the budget deficit steadily declined for five years during the Clinton administration, followed by actual budget surpluses in the years 1998-2001.

But now the public’s concern about losing ground on the deficit has shot back up in parallel with the massive jump in the deficit under the Bush administration that began in 2002. In that year, the federal budget plunged $157.8 billion into the red from a surplus of $128.2 billion in 2001, followed by Bush deficits that have averaged about $340 billion for the last four years. No wonder the public is anxious!

So maybe it’s time to make serious progress again on the budget deficit. Now that’s a novel idea! Let’s hope our politicians take it for a spin.

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Ruy Teixeira

Former Senior Fellow

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