America Worries as Government Mucks Through Budget

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Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Michael Dimock, associate director for Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, talked about the new Pew poll on people's perceptions of the economy and how the government is handling the budget and the deficit.

When asked whether President Obama or Republicans in Congress have a better approach to the budget deficit, most Americans say they don't see much of a difference between them. (Compared to November, when only a third felt this way.) This month a poll conducted the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found this dive in public opinion reads true across the board — Americans seem to be souring on, well, everything.

The shift has something to do with the mid-term elections is not that surprising, according to Michael Dimock.

A lot of folks right after the midterm elections felt that the Republicans had a plan. At that point about a third of Americans said they thought Republicans had the better approach to the deficit. Now that's fallen down to just 21 percent who think Republicans have a better approach to the deficit than Obama. Some of the bloom is off and that's not unusual in the months after an election when a party turns from campaigning to actually governing which is a much trickier endeavor.

There's evidence of a divide among conservatives as well, Dimock said. In November 2010, when Tea Partyers were asked this question, 16 percent said there wasn't much difference between how President Obama and the Republicans are handling the deficit. This time around, that number more than doubled to 39 percent.

There's certainly a wing of the Republican party who has consistently felt that the leadership isn't going far enough and has become sort of disillusioned with the way that the Republican party is handling the deficit issue.

There was also another shift in how Independents are feeling, after many of them leaned to the right in the midterm elections. The percentage of Independents who felt Republicans had the better plan for the deficit in November 2010 has now been cut in half in this current poll — from 37 percent to 17 percent.  And now 62 percent of Independents feel that neither side has a quality approach on the deficit.

Dimock said over the last decade, the proportion of Americans who say they're neither Democrat nor Republican has increased. Now it's up to nearly 40 percent of the American public. This substantial growth.

What's interesting about it is Democratic identification had really surged around 2007 and 2008 during Obama's election year. It's come back down since then but Republicans have not gained any traction in drawing people in to Republican identification. So, as there are fewer Democrats there are just more Independents.

Independents are tricky though, Dimock said. Some lean left and some lean right.

The diversity of opinions among Independents is incredibly wide...About half of the people who say that they agree with the Tea Party are Independents, about half. The other half say they're Republican...but in many ways those Independent Tea Party-ers are far more conservative than Republicans...You see that on the left as well. You see plenty of people who call themselves Independent but hold very, very liberal views on government policies, be that social policies or economic policies, so the Independent grouping has become incredibly diverse, widespread in its views.

As for the number one economic concern for Americans? It's jobs, jobs jobs. The majority of folks who called in to the Brian Lehrer Show felt the same way. Bonnie on Staten Island had this to say:

If you don't have a job, you can't pay off your debts. That goes for the country as well as for your own private budget.

The poll question gave three answer choices on this one: jobs, the deficit, or rising prices and jobs was the overwhelming answer, but there was a lot of break-down among demographics. Republican men were most concerned about the deficit. Younger people are most concerned about jobs. Women and low-income people are most concerned about inflation.

As for tax increases, 61 percent of Democrats opposed them in the poll as a way to reduce the deficit. Dimock said this demonstrates what kinds of answers you get when you ask very general questions.

I think this gets to one of the critical problems right now with the deficit debate which is, people oppose a lot of things in general but when you get down to the specifics, there is more support. There's no doubt that a majority of Democrats backed eliminating the tax cuts for income for over $250,000 which didn't get through in December...The problem is when things are pitched in general terms, people tend to reactively oppose them...but when you get more specific, like what about this kind of change what about that kind of change, people express less resistance. But right now the conversation is still in these broad general terms which leads to a lot of resistance from the public.

April 8 is the final due date for the federal budget.