Will a Smaller Deficit Make the Public Love Government More?

A reporter asks:

One rationale for a major deficit reduction deal, according to President Obama and his advisers, is the potential to boost the political prospects of liberal initiatives in the long term.  As Obama more or less said at today’s press conference, he thinks that once the deficit issue is “put to rest,” voters will be more willing to support public investment, social spending, and other priorities…But what does the evidence actually show?  My guess would be that public skepticism of/opposition to government spending is pretty entrenched—and that it reflects factors other than awareness of changes in legislation.  For example, I’d think that enthusiasm for government waxes and wanes based primarily on overall feelings about the economy.  In other words, when the economy is good, people aren’t so opposed to spending; when the economy is bad, they see spending as gov’t taking away their money and wasting it.

I seem to recall polls showing that support for government generally was much higher from the 1930s until the 1960s—and that it declined precipitously after that, never to rebound fully.  A lot of that was tied up with race, I presume, and many people hoped that welfare reform might help change perceptions.  But did it?  (I know it helped Clinton politically, but I’m thinking more about long-term attitudes towards the state.)  And how applicable would that be to the situation today, given that the post-welfare reform period was also one of very high growth?

My response built off of this post.

First, there is something to what he suggests re: the state of economy and attitudes toward government.  In the article by Christopher Wlezien mentioned in that post, he finds that increases in economic optimism lead to increases in support for social spending (i.e., education, welfare, health care.).  However, The Macro-Polity finds that, on average, the public’s “mood” trends more liberal as unemployment increases (when, presumably economic optimism is lower).

At the same time, perhaps a bigger finding is that the public’s preferences for government spending are “thermostatic”: when spending increases, the public wants it to decrease.  When spending decreases, the public wants it to increase.  Unsurprisingly, then, the increases in spending under Obama have likely led to the perception that government is doing “too much.”

So the question then becomes: would reductions in discretionary spending and decreases in the deficit change that perception?  Perhaps yes, if unemployment remains high and the public is truly thermostatic.  But, given the residual skepticism of the stimulus and health care reform, my guess is that the public would support targeted spending on relatively popular areas more than a large-scale blank-check for new investment.  (Leaving aside the issue of what, if anything, Congress would agree to.)

The trend the reporter describes—whereby support for government dropped in the 1960s, never to recover—sounds a bit like the trend in trust in government, which is distinct from trends in preferences over spending.  Trust did drop in the late 1960s and early 1970s, although it recovered quite a bit in the 1990s.  This does appear related to the strength of the economy.  I’ve written various posts on this (here, here, here, here).

Finally, I don’t think welfare reform created any sea change in popular perceptions of government.  See this piece (pdf) by Joe Soss and Sanford Schram.  The abstract:

This article analyzes the strategic use of public policy as a tool for reshaping public opinion. In the 1990s, “progressive revisionists” argued that, by reforming welfare, liberals could free the Democratic Party of a significant electoral liability, reduce the race-coding of poverty politics, and produce a public more willing to invest in anti-poverty efforts. Connecting this argument to recent scholarship on policy feedback, we pursue a quantitative case study of the potential for new policies to move public opinion. Our analysis reveals that welfare reform in the 1990s produced few changes in mass opinion. To explain this result, we propose a general framework for the analysis of mass feedback effects. After locating welfare as a “distant-visible” case in this framework, we advance four general propositions that shed light on our case-specific findings as well as the general conditions under which mass feedback effects should be viewed as more or less likely.

UPDATE: The reporter was Jonathan Cohn and here is his piece.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.