Deficit Attention ‘Disorder'? Public Worry Over Budget Easing

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By Jonathan Nicholson

Feb. 8 — As official Washington gets set to scrutinize President Barack Obama's final budget plan, there are signs the public is increasingly seeing the government's long-running budget deficit with less and less concern.

The drop-off in measures of concern over the deficit come, ironically, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office substantially downgraded the budget outlook in its latest annual report in January. In that report, the CBO said the deficit was set to widen in 2016 for the first time since 2009 and the 10-year deficit would be higher as economic growth slowed due to Baby Boomers leaving the work force.

In other words, as the budget picture has darkened, the public appears to care less.

Below Cutting Crime Rate

“It hasn't been as big of an issue this time around as in past elections,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition. “It really seems like voters are interested in other things.”

Two recent measures of public concern on the deficit have indicated a drop. An early January poll by the Pew Research Center found the deficit ranking only ninth among the top priorities Obama and the Republican Congress should work on. It was cited by 56 percent of respondents, down from 64 percent a year earlier and well below terrorism and the economy, which were both cited by 75 percent of respondents. The deficit was mentioned just below reducing crime—58 percent—and just above helping the poor and needy—54 percent.

Similarly, a recent monthly tracking index compiled by the anti-deficit Peter G. Peterson Foundation also showed the public at its least pessimistic about the deficit in the measure's approximately four-year history. The January Fiscal Confidence Index, meant to track public concern and expectations over the deficit in a way similar to The Conference Board's monthly consumer confidence index, rose to 53.

While that is well below the 100 level seen as neutral, and thus a negative reading, it was the highest level the measure has seen since its inception in December 2012.

‘Emotional Issue.'

One reason behind the easing concern may be the economy, which, while showing signs of fatigue in recent weeks, is in generally better shape than in 2013, when the Pew survey showed a peak of deficit worry.

Stan Collender, executive vice president and national director of financial communications with public relations firm Qorvis MSLGROUP, said worry about the budget tends to move in tandem with worry about the economy. When the economy is shaky, the deficit gets blamed, he said, while it gets forgotten when the economy is doing well.

“The deficit is an emotional issue,” he said.

Concord's Bixby agreed, saying when the economy is bad, people like to blame overspending by politicians as the cause.

Lack of Attention ‘Frustrating.'

The lessened worry may also reflect the progress made on the deficit since its most recent peak in 2009, at $1.413 trillion, and its fall since then, to $438.7 billion in 2015. The White House has touted the cutting of the annual deficits, while Republicans have focused on the still-increasing debt level and the forecasts that the annual deficits will grow larger.

Bixby, whose nonpartisan group has been working with a business-oriented group called Fix the Debt to have presidential candidates explain their fiscal policies in Iowa and New Hampshire, said the lack of deficit attention has been “kind of frustrating,” especially given the new CBO numbers.

“It's more important for us to be doing this because it's not getting the attention it would otherwise,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Nicholson in Washington at jnicholson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com