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Polling on the deficit

Kevin Drum points us to a NYT/CBS poll, specifically a question about the deficit and whether people approve of the way Obama is handling it:

54 percent of the public disapproves of Barack Obama's handling of the deficit. And yet, as the chart on the right shows, the deficit is shrinking dramatically. Last year it dropped by $200 billion, and this year, thanks to a recovering economy, lower spending from the sequester, and the increased taxes in the fiscal cliff deal, it's projected to fall another $450 billion.

Bottom line: It's unfortunate that the deficit is falling so fast. It's a headwind against the recovery that we don't need. Nonetheless, the deficit is falling fast, and no one seems to know it yet. The chart above is one that deserves much wider distribution. Be sure to show it to your conservative friends at every opportunity.

I strongly suspect Kevin is right that most people are thinking about that question in terms of cutting the deficit. So while I disapprove of how Obama is handling the deficit (it shouldn't be falling, at least that rate, we need to be spending more to help the economy) and think everyone should agree with me, the vast majority of that 54% very likely aren't disapproving because it's falling too fast.

I went to the actual poll to check the wording and what other questions they were asking. What I found was several questions about the deficit that prime people to think of the issue purely in terms of cutting it instead of increasing it. For instance, here are some of the questions under the section heading "The Budget Deficit":

Overall, what do you think is the best way to reduce the federal budget deficit?

Cut federal spending 33%
Increasing taxes
Combination of both 60%
Don't know/No answer

If you HAD to choose ONE, which of the following programs would you be willing to change in order to cut spending ?

Medicare 20%
Social Security 14%
The Military 49%
Don't know/No answer 17%

The first question assumes that the deficit should be cut. They don't even ask if people think it should raised or kept at the current level. Maybe this is why so many people think the deficit should be cut, that's all they ever hear from politicians and the media. Perhaps if people were asked a question like, "Would you support a deficit increase if the spending could help the economy grow faster?" they might not just assume the deficit always has to be cut.

In general, do you think it is acceptable for a President or members of Congress to threaten a government shutdown during their budget negotiations in order to achieve their goals, or is that not an acceptable way to negotiate?

Acceptable 16%
Not acceptable 80%
Don't know/No answer

Notice how this one pins the idea of threatening a shutdown on both the president and congress. In reality it's Republicans in Congress that are threatening a shutdown if Obamacare isn't defunded, not the president. And they don't even ask the more important question, whether Republicans should threaten not to raise the debt ceiling. This whole thing is a mess. Not only do most people not have a great understanding of these issues, they are being asked skewed questions while not being asked other questions that would be relevant to the issue. We should never put too much stock into any given poll. But we should especially not put much of any in this one and any like it.