When it comes to reducing federal deficits and the debt, many Americans are in the same psychological place they're in when it comes to losing weight.
They want to do it. They just don't want to break too much of a sweat.
Two new polls from Bloomberg News and the Pew Research Center suggest just how difficult it could be for President Obama and Congress to effectively tackle the nation's fiscal challenges because of these contradictory impulses in the citizenry's psyche.
The Bloomberg poll showed most respondents wanting policymakers to get the nation's fiscal books in order. But they have the unrealistic expectation that it can be done without entitlements taking significant hits and by taxing the rich more.
A snippet from a Bloomberg story by Heidi Przybyla and Mike Dorning:
Americans want Congress to bring down a federal budget deficitthat many believe is “dangerously out of control,” only under two conditions: minimize the pain and make the rich pay.
The public wants Congress to keep its hands off entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, a Bloomberg National Poll shows. They oppose cuts in most other major domestic programs and defense. They want to maintain subsidies for farmers and tax breaks like the mortgage-interest deduction. And they’re against an increase in the gasoline tax.
Pew Research Center found a similar sentiment:
In many respects, there is a broad public consensus when it comes to the federal budget deficit: seven-in-ten say it is a major problem that must be addressed right away, and roughly two-thirds say that the best way to reduce the deficit is through a combination of cutting major government programs and increasing taxes...
... Most of the major deficit reduction proposals under discussion meet with public disapproval. Particularly unpopular are provisions that would tax the health insurance people receive from their employers (72% disapprove), raise the national gasoline tax (74% disapprove), and reduce federal funding to states for things like education and roads (71% disapprove). Of 12 ideas tested, just two meet with majority approval: increasing the amount of earned income that is subject to Social Security withholding (64% approve) and freezing the salaries of government workers (59% approve); the latter proposal is supported by President Obama and many Republicans.
What all this suggests is that the president, from his bully pulpit, and congressional leaders will have to change the dynamics if they hope to make the kinds of cuts needed to significantly close the deficits and the debt.
Americans have been willing to make sacrifices in American history at times when they have believed the very future of the nation was at risk. World War II is one of the most obvious examples of this.
Of course, those sacrifices came after the Great Depression so Americans were arguably more accustomed to the kind of rationing that occurred during the war than they would have been otherwise.
We clearly live in different times. The Greatest Generation that went through the Great Depression and the World War II didn't grow up with entitlements as later generations did.
The housing bust and following financial crisis have created a tidal wave of economic anxiety and reduced assets that arguably have made many Americans more psychically dependent on Social Security and other entitlements, not less.
In any event, it takes persuasive leaders to effectively explain the need for sacrifice. These polls show the president and the congressional leadership have their work cut out for them.