‘The Beltway deficit feedback loop’

‘THE BELTWAY DEFICIT FEEDBACK LOOP’…. In 2005, there were plenty of credible national polls that asked Americans what they considered the top priority for policymakers in Washington. Throughout 2004, we saw the usual responses — the economy, the war in Iraq, the terrorist threat, etc. — by mid-way through 2005, Social Security suddenly started showing up near the top of the list.

Had anything changed with regards to the Social Security system? Not even a little. The polls shifted because then-President Bush and the Republican Congress starting talking up the notion of a Social Security “crisis.” The more Americans heard about this, the more many voters were inclined to believe there was a problem in need of attention.

The point, of course, is that the discourse matters. People often aren’t concerned about certain policy challenges until they’re led to believe they’re supposed to be concerned.

With that in mind, Greg Sargent had a smart item this morning on “the Beltway deficit feedback loop.”

For the longest time, polls indicated that the deficit ranked low on the list of voter concerns, showing public opinion to be strikingly out of sync with official Washington’s prioritizing of the deficit over job creation.

But this morning brings a new poll from the Washington Post and Pew Research that finds a whopping 81 percent now think the deficit is a major problem that should be dealt with now, rather than when the economy improves. Tellingly, that number has jumped even among Democrats.

When you have leading officials in both parties — starting with all Republicans and a handful of moderate Dems — acting as if reining in the deficit is so urgent that it requires more attention than creating jobs, people start to tell pollsters they agree. This helps create a climate in which Dems lose any incentive to make the case for more government spending to prime the recovery, which begins to vanish from the conversation.

The public wasn’t inclined to care about the deficit, and wanted the focus to be on job creation and economic growth. But the mainstream was then told — by both parties and the media — that those concerns are so 2010. Now it’s time to shift gears and make the deficit the priority.

With so much “consensus” on the subject, there’s polling evidence that attitudes really are changing. Folks’ priorities are affected by what they’re told to care about.

Washington is stuck in the wrong conversation, but it’s the only one anyone’s actually hearing.