A couple of years ago, a Bloomberg Politics Poll asked the public a good question about the deficit: "Is it your sense that this year the deficit is getting bigger or getting smaller, or is it staying about the same as last year?" It wasn't even close -- despite the fact that the deficit, in reality, was shrinking quickly, only 6% of the public knew that. A 62% majority said they believed it was getting bigger, which was the opposite of the truth.
Two years later, Al Hunt flags the results of the new Bloomberg Politics Poll, which offers some good news and some bad news when it comes to the public's recognition of reality.
"A quick question about the deficit -- which is the difference between what the federal government spends and what it takes in in taxes and other revenue each year. Over the last six years, do you think the deficit has been getting bigger or smaller?"Bigger: 73%Smaller: 21%Not sure: 6%
The wording of the question is slightly different than in early 2013 -- this time, there was no option for those who believe the deficit is roughly the same size -- but at least in this poll, the number of people who are correct has grown. So, too, is the percentage of Americans who are wrong.
Here is it is in chart form:
And here, in case anyone's forgotten, is reality:
At a certain level, it's probably tempting to ask, "So what?" Americans have no idea what's happening with the deficit, some will argue, but it really doesn't make a bit of difference. This was true during the Clinton era -- and Clinton actually eliminated the deficit altogether -- and it's true now.
To which I say, maybe. Whether or not Americans know and/or understand the basics of the fiscal argument may not have a practical impact on the debate itself, but the fact remains that voters are ultimately responsible for electing policymakers. If Americans believe, incorrectly, that the deficit is getting bigger, and they also consider this a bad thing, these same voters may be inclined to vote for candidates who'll slash public investments and undermine social-insurance programs. And that has real-world consequences.
For that matter, I also look at this as an example of how Republican arguments seep into the public consciousness, even when those arguments are demonstrably ridiculous. President Obama has overseen the fastest deficit reduction since World War II, but the public is convinced that the deficit is growing and Obama deserves the blame. Why would the public think that? Because Republican politicians and pundits have spent the last six years screaming about that rascally president burdening our grandchildren with out-of-control, trillion-dollar deficits. The Beltway is filled with Very Serious People who continue to characterize Obama as someone who's fiscally reckless, spending liberally without regard for the consequences, reality be damned.
Indeed, at a certain level, I don't entirely blame the public for being confused. From the typical person's perspective, the deficit must be growing -- otherwise it wouldn't make any sense that the political world always seems to be making a fuss about the issue.
But the truth is, Republican apoplexy and reality are often out of sync. In fact, it's not just the deficit -- the same Bloomberg Politics Poll asked respondents, "On immigration, do you think the Obama administration has sent more or fewer undocumented immigrants back to their home countries, compared to ten years ago?"
By a nearly two-to-one margin, a majority of Americans believe Obama has deported fewer undocumented immigrants. The truth is the exact opposite.
There's plenty of blame to go around for such widespread confusion -- the public has to take some responsibility, as does the media -- but I don't think it's an accident that bogus Republican talking points are too often accepted as fact by the American mainstream. GOP politicians and pundits excel at salesmanship, to the point that they can convince people to buy transparent nonsense.