Smart policy, smart politics

SMART POLICY, SMART POLITICS…. For much of 2009, polls pointed to a discouraging perception among Americans. Given a choice between economic growth and deficit reduction, large majorities — over and over again — said policymakers should focus on the latter. There was no real rationale for the majority of the public to be so wrong about this, but different pollsters in different times of the year found the same misguided result.

There were meaningful consequences for the public’s wildly flawed priorities. As lawmakers on the Hill saw the polls, for example, the political appetite for investing in economic stimulus disappeared. Nervous Democrats started echoing Republicans about spending cuts, and key legislation wouldn’t even get a fair hearing unless the bills were fully paid for. Under the economic circumstances, this was bizarre. But under the political circumstances, lawmakers felt like they had no other choice.

It’s worth noting, then, that there’s at least some evidence that attitudes have shifted in a more constructive direction. This question in the newly-released Newsweek poll bears special attention:

“Which one of the following do you think should have the higher priority for policy-makers in Washington right now:

37% Reducing the federal budget deficit
57% Federal spending to create jobs
6% Don’t know

This strikes me as very encouraging. For many Americans, the “deficit” has become an amorphous concept that they’ve been conditioned to viscerally reject, and the polling last year suggested this knee-jerk reaction was so strong, deficit reduction was actually perceived as more important than the economy itself.

But the Newsweek poll — yes, I know, it’s only one poll — wasn’t close. Asked which should be a higher priority, the deficit or spending money on job creation, the latter won by 20 points.

Dems on the Hill are afraid to make economic investments because they expect a public backlash. They’re nervous enough about the midterms and aren’t in the mood to hear another round of “government spending is bad.” But here’s data showing that spending on job creation is actually quite popular. Republicans would respond by saying the deficit matters more, but that’s not where the public is right now.

So why not borrow the money and invest in job creation? Like, immediately?

As for the rest of the poll, President Obama’s approval rating is at 47%, the parties are tied on the generic ballot at 45%, and more than twice as many Americans blame Bush than Obama for the country’s economic problems.

As for the fight over Bush-era tax rates, a 52% majority believes “Congress should allow the Bush tax cuts for persons in the top two percent income category to expire,” while 38% support the Republican line.

I can understand Democratic panic about pushing an agenda that doesn’t poll well. But when the majority is already with them, the apprehension is tougher to appreciate.