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Could a Deficit Deal Revive Liberalism?

One of President Obama's more provocative comments from Friday's press conference was an argument he made to fellow liberals:

If you are a progressive, you should be concerned about debt and deficit just as much as if you're a conservative. And the reason is because if the only thing we're talking about over the next year, two years, five years, is debt and deficits, then it's very hard to start talking about how do we make investments in community colleges so that our kids are trained, how do we actually rebuild $2 trillion worth of crumbling infrastructure.
If you care about making investments in our kids and making investments in our infrastructure and making investments in basic research, then you should want our fiscal house in order, so that every time we propose a new initiative somebody doesn’t just throw up their hands and say, "Ah, more big spending, more government."
It would be very helpful for us to be able to say to the American people, our fiscal house is in order. And so now the question is what should we be doing to win the future and make ourselves more competitive and create more jobs, and what aspects of what government is doing are a waste and we should eliminate. And that's the kind of debate that I'd like to have.

It’s an alluring and seemingly intuitive argument. (I'm pretty sure I've suggested similar things before, at least in passing.) It's also consistent with a clearly well-sourced blog item by Ezra Klein, from Thursday, laying out the administration's rationale for seeking a large deficit deal, rather than a small one. 

But is it true? Would securing a major deficit reduction package reduce opposition to government spending and, perhaps, build support for liberal initiatives in the future? I put the question to three prominent public opinion experts on Friday. All of them were skeptical, although not without qualification.

The big problem seems to be that opposition to government spending, at least as a general proposition, doesn’t really have much to do with the deficit. Rather, it reflects an overall lack of trust in government, one that’s lingered in the public consciousness ever since the 1960s and early 1970s, when issues like Vietnam, race, and Watergate made the public increasingly wary of what Washington was doing. "There is a lot of general public distrust of government, and specific public skepticism about government waste and corruption," says Larry Bartels, a political scientist at Princeton. "But these attitudes do not seem very sensitive to short-term political developments, and I would be surprised if they turned out to be very sensitive to deficit or debt levels."

That’s not to say the public’s views can’t change over time. And John Sides, from George Washington University, says there is evidence that public attitudes on government spending are “thermostatic”--in other words, "when spending increases, the public wants it to decrease. When spending decreases, the public wants it to increase." But Sides was dubious a deficit deal alone would really change public perceptions that much. I heard the same thing from Larry Jacobs, of the University of Minnesota, who wondered whether any such deal – no matter how large and well advertised – would really make enough of an impression on the public, particularly in an era when partisan media so frequently reinforce preconceptions. "The public’s view is not akin to a sequestered jury’s," he said.

Of course, all three men noted an important caveat: No matter how much people distrust government generally, they still love specific government programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. ("Support for spending on specific government programs is generally high—so if that’s what the president thinks he needs, he already has it," notes Bartels.) And in the long run, certainly, deficit reduction can help liberalism in one very concrete way: By reducing the government's overall debt burden and, in so doing, freeing up dollars that government could then use more productively. But those are separate arguments. 

For more on this issue, by the way, see Jonathan Bernstein, Greg Sargent, and Joan Walsh.