America’s top priority is not Barack Obama’s top priority

Jim Geraghty of National Review digs through the latest Pew Research survey and finds a seemingly astonishing disconnect: while Barack Obama retains a reasonable personal approval rating of 51 percent, his approval ratings on the issues are all deep under water.  Furthermore, the public’s top priority is… deficit reduction.  More specifically, deficit reduction through spending cuts.

First of all, what is the public’s top priority, by a wide margin? Deficit reduction. Well ahead of immigration, gun control, and climate change…

What’s more, the vast majority of Americans want the deficit to be brought down by spending cuts or mostly spending cuts (73 percent) rather than tax increases or mostly tax increases (19 percent). Folks, that is a consensus that reaches across the partisan divide.

With Obama at a 51 percent job approval but in the low to mid-40s in his handling on most issues, discussion of the president should note that a certain segment of the population likes him, personally, a lot more than his policies.

Chalk it up to his appearances in non-political programming like The View, The Tonight Show, and ESPN, or chalk it up to the happy images of him spending time with Michelle and his daughters. Obama is a lot more effective at getting people to like him than persuading them.

(Emphasis mine.)  A sharp observation by Geraghty… and also a rather pointed indictment of Obama’s governing style.  A President who spends all his time harvesting personal popularity without moving public opinion on the issues is running a permanent campaign without getting anything done.  That’s just about the textbook definition of what voters claim to despise in the political class.

But how about those amazing numbers on deficit reduction?  According to the Pew poll, it’s the Number One issue for 70 percent of voters across the political spectrum, including a 65 percent majority of Democrats.  Nothing else comes anywhere near it.  The next issue on the public agenda is “major immigration legislation,” and that only gets 51 percent support – with Republicans and Democrats almost precisely equal in their lukewarm attitude.

And of that staggering 70 percent majority, 73 percent want deficit reduction to come primarily through spending cuts!  Only 19 percent want it to come through tax increases.  Not only is this a remarkably coherent, bipartisan level of support, but it surely ranks among the most lopsided support for any issue in a public-opinion poll.  When was the last time a specific policy idea drew such high levels of approval?

So… how on Earth did this electorate re-elect Barack Obama, the living incarnation of the exact opposite approach?  He thinks “deficit reduction” means tax increases, period, full stop.  He never shuts up about it, and he never stops proposing more spending.  He’ll make a little insincere small talk about “smart spending cuts” someday, but as soon as a real spending cut is on the table, he rather literally grabs some hostages – cops, firefighters, teachers, paramedics, soldiers – and loudly declares they’ll be sacrificed to absorb the very first dollar clipped from the federal budget.  He’s done this repeatedly; the events of the past week are but the most recent example.

No one paying the slightest bit of attention to the fiscal drama in Washington could possibly think Barack Obama agrees with the principle of deficit reduction mostly or entirely through spending cuts.  It’s hard to imagine even the fabled Low-Information Voters would get that, from even the most heavily biased media coverage.  At best, they might be bamboozled into thinking Obama wants the “balanced approach” he always talks about, but never delivers – a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases.

I think part of the answer to this apparent cognitive dissonance is that enough people still swallow the “balanced approach” gibberish to believe their disagreement with the President is less pronounced than it actually is.  They think he takes the deficit crisis seriously, and they think he wants about half spending cuts, half tax increases.  The public wants more spending cuts and fewer tax hikes.  But as long as Obama’s tax hikes don’t hit them personally, and the Republicans can’t or won’t do an effective job of making it clear that Obama’s big spending is out of control, the voters just don’t realize how out-of-step Obama is.  They think he’s wrong, but they don’t yet accept that he is an “extremist.”

Another problem is that everyone agrees deficit reduction is a Good Thing in theory, but a lot of them still don’t see it as an immediate crisis.  In other words, they believe civic responsibility obliges them to list it as a top priority, but they actually see it as important in the abstract, not crucial in the short term.  That’s why Obama’s hostage tactics work fairly well.  “Oh, so deficit reduction means we have to fire cops?  Well… maybe it’s not really that important, not just yet.”

And the debt crisis is not yet a moral issue in the minds of these poll respondents.  It floats to the top in a relaxed setting where they’re allowed to be reasonable… but their support for the issue crumbles when they are told something else (immigration reform, “job creation” through economic “stimulus”) holds greater moral urgency.  The Republicans would therefore be wise to step up the moral arguments against government insolvency.  It’s not exactly that these respondents are “lying” to the pollsters; it’s that they’ll give a different answer under other circumstances.

America’s fiscal crisis is something many people think should be discussed… but they’re not going to base their vote on it.  To date, the Democrats have been consistently successful at calling their bluff.