PRIORITIES…. Taking a stand in support of fiscal responsibility and deficit reduction no doubt polls well, but I can only hope Democratic leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue realize the dangers of shifting the focus away from economic growth.

If and when health care passes, the White House and the Congress will be tugged in two seemingly different directions. On the one hand, with unemployment in the double digits (and an election around the corner), Democrats will have to do something about jobs — and that means another spending bill. The House has already begun its work and the Senate will have to follow suit if the economy is to improve, and if Democrats want to avoid a political blood bath.

But the White House, and a bipartisan bloc in the Senate, have made very clear that they’ll pay equal, or greater, attention to addressing the country’s perilous fiscal situation. And that could touch off yet another tug of war between liberal Democrats and centrist legislators over the country’s priorities.

Atrios noted in response, “The best hope is that this is mostly about selling future deficit reductions rather than anything near term. I do not know why Dems think people really care about the deficit. They don’t. In bad times it’s just something ‘bad’ they project their anxieties onto, but they don’t care.”

That’s right on both counts. If Dems, most notably the president, decide to present plans to gradually reduce the deficit as the economy improves, that’s fine — just so long as there’s an understanding that cutting spending now would make a fragile recovery much more likely to fail.

The president’s instincts on this seem sound. Here’s Obama, a week ago today:

“Now, if we can’t grow our economy, then it is going to be that much harder for us to reduce the deficit. The single most important thing we could do right now for deficit reduction is to spark strong economic growth, which means that people who’ve got jobs are paying taxes, and businesses that are making profits have taxes, are paying taxes. That’s the most important thing we can do. We understand that in this administration. […]

“The last thing we would want to do in the midst of a — what is a weak recovery, is us to essentially take more money out of the system either by raising taxes or by drastically slashing spending.”

But Atrios’ other point is just as important: people say they care about the deficit, but they don’t. They never really have. If Americans took the matter seriously, the Tea Party crowd would have taken to the streets when Bush took a $230 billion surplus and turned it into a $1.3 trillion deficit. They never said a word.

Folks care about unemployment. They care about economic growth. The more policymakers focus on — and deliver on — these issues, the happier voters will be.

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Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.