Polls Show Americans Don't Like Deficits

The latest CBS News/New York Times Poll found that by 52 percent to 41 percent, Americans would prefer the federal government focus on reducing the budget deficit rather than spending to stimulate the economy.

Americans have never liked deficits -- they've been viewed as serious problems, and when the government has run a deficit, polls have often shown that lowering it was a priority.

The government ran budget deficits in the 1980s, during the Reagan Administration, and Americans worried about them then too. In Gallup Polls conducted in the 1980s, just over eight in 10 Americans said the deficit was a serious problem, including about six in 10 who called it very serious.

A few years later, in 1990, a CBS News/New York Times Poll found that 76 percent said the deficit was a serious problem that needed immediate action. Just 16 percent said it was serious but didn't need to be solved immediately, and only three percent rated it not serious.

In more recent polls, the public has shown similar levels of concern about the deficit. In February 2005, fully 90 percent of the public said the deficit was a serious problem in the country, including 52 percent who called it very serious.

As recently as March, 69 percent felt that future generations will be hurt "a lot" if the deficit remains high.

In the past, the public has not seen deficit spending as the best means of stimulating the economy either. In polls conducted in 1993 by both the L.A. Times and Time/CNN/Yankelovich, the public saw cutting the deficit as a more effective way to boost the economy than increasing government spending.

The budget deficit was also a concern the last time health care reform was under serious discussion in Washington. In 1993, 50 percent of Americans said that reforming health care was a more important problem, but nearly as many, 44 percent, chose reducing the federal budget deficit. A 1993 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found just 12 percent of Americans were willing to pay for health care reform by increasing the budget deficit – but 85 percent were opposed.

Future polls will show how concerns about the current budget deficit affect discussions of health care reform today, and the public's willingness to support a program than might involve government spending on a large scale.

In this latest CBS/New York Times Poll, Republicans are especially focused on lowering the deficit – 76 percent say it is their priority. Just 40 percent of Democrats say the same.

So far, the public doesn't think President Obama has addressed concerns about the deficit. While the CBS News/New York Times Poll found his overall rating on handling the economy at 57 percent, unchanged from last month, 60 percent of Americans think he does not have a clear plan for dealing with the budget deficit. Just 30 percent think he does.

Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series.
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    Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys.