Whether it can be chalked up to a spike in government spending or a renewed focus on the issue by conservatives, President Barack Obama enters his second term facing an American public far more concerned about the federal budget deficit than it was four years ago.
According to Pew Research Center's annual policy priorities survey, released on Thursday, 72 percent of Americans identified reducing the federal budget deficit as a top policy priority for Obama's second term, with only the economy and jobs pegged as more important.
It's a far cry from January of 2009, when Obama took his first oath of office and the Pew priorities survey showed only 53 percent of Americans labeling the budget deficit as a top priority — making it only a middling issue at the time (it ranked ninth on the survey's list of 20 policy items).
That shift in the public's focus is no doubt the result of a political climate that's changed markedly over the last four years, although the left and the right may have disparate interpretations for that rise in the budget deficit's salience.
Liberals will likely point to the ascendancy of the tea party and well-financed groups like "Fix the Debt" that were conspicuously absent when former President George W. Bush was in the White House. Conservatives may attribute the rise in the public's concern to exorbitant spending ushered in by the current administration, as has been their rallying cry during the Obama presidency.
Regardless, Michael Dimock, director of Pew, said that the deficit has emerged as a touchstone for nearly all partisan disputes.
"The budget deficit has become the framing issue around nearly all policy debates, from Afghanistan to entitlements to energy policy to the environment," Dimock told TPM in an email.
But Dimock acknowledged that the GOP has reverted to a focus on fiscal restraint, something he said is common for any minority party.
"I think it's critical to remember that deficit priorities switch," Dimock said. "The Republican Party is not historically the party of deficit reduction — they stand out on that front only when there is a Democratic president. The same is true on the other side. To some extent, deficit reduction is a rallying point for the party that is out of power as it makes its case against the policies of any sitting president. This was certainly true of Democrats in the 2000s"
Although Republicans (84 percent) are more apt to call the budget deficit a top priority, it's drawn bipartisan concern. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats said it should be a top priority, as did 71 percent of independents. That, according to Dimock, is emblematic of the deficit's status as a "universal" — that is, an issue that "nobody out there is really against."
Fortunately for Democrats, Dimock said many of the policies Obama figures to pursue in his second term — gun control, climate change, and immigration — qualify as universals, even though they ranked fairly low in the latest priorities poll.