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Everyone Hates Deficit Loves Spending

October 7, 2010

It's the deficit - all $1.47 trillion of it - that has most people worried. Many of them are angry.

That's the issue that gave birth to the tea party movement and compels thousands to show up at rallies across the country with signs saying such things as "I'm Not Your ATM."

That's what has put the Democrats' congressional majorities in jeopardy, and has left Republicans poised for big gains. Yet there's more than a little contradiction in the position politicians and voters alike seem to be taking. We invited Yahoo! readers to give their views on federal spending in Ask America, a nonscientific polling forum, and many expressed concern -- in some cases outrage -- about the deficit. At the same time, however, many also focused as much on what not to cut as they did on the hard choices that must be made.

The bottom line with the candidates — as well as with many Ask America readers — seems to be: Cut spending, but not if it takes money from what's nearest and dearest to me.

Poll after poll shows that doing something to rein in runaway government spending is what people are focusing on as Nov. 2 approaches. One of the most recent is a Reuters Ipsos poll that has 57 percent of Americans wanting the U.S. government to cut the deficit, despite arguments by the White House and many economists that cutting spending could further damage the sluggish economy.

Candidates are getting the message. Republicans called for a spending freeze in the party's recently released "Pledge to America," and President Obama is making budget control part of his message as he stumps for congressional candidates.

Much of the rhetoric on all sides, however, is long on adjectives and short on specifics.

Specifically, Ask America posed this question to readers: "Which is more important now — spending to keep the economy growing, or cutting back government spending to bring the deficit under control?"

As of Wednesday, Oct. 6, nearly 22,722 people had weighed in with their thoughts, and 3 in 4 of those favored cutting back. But again, there's where it gets complicated. Many also say they would not support the idea if the cuts hurt them or programs they support.

User Donald voted for cutting back, with this caveat:  "Unless of course you intend to cut back on anything my family needs. … This is an easy position to take until it impacts you." Another Yahoo! user commented, "Why not start by cutting some of the free housing in every town in America for the deadbeats along with Medicaid, utility assistance, free dental, free health, etc. Leave my SS alone"

Despite the overwhelming vote for getting a grip on spending, there also were these contradictions among Ask America respondents:

    * 58 percent said they support government spending to develop new energy sources.
    * 70 percent said they think new government investment in the country's infrastructure will help boost the economy over the long haul.
    * 68 percent said the government should fund job-training programs.
    * 74 percent said it should support the manufacturing sector.

So what accounts for the disconnect?

"It's a question of what do you get for your taxes," said Evans Witt, CEO of Princeton Survey Research Associates International, an independent research firm. "People are angry because they don't see a connection between what they're paying and what they're getting out of it."

That's what Tasha seemed to be saying in this Ask America comment: "I am tired of being in the half of U.S. citizens paying for the other half. Cut the entitlements"

Maybe it's human nature to look for something — or someone — to blame when circumstances get difficult. But it doesn't make the solutions any easier.

"People are angry because their lives have taken a difficult turn, often through no fault of their own," Witt said. "That's a reality. But the other reality is that if you want to balance the federal budget, the ways you do that are very unpalatable to most people. Let's cut Grandma's Social Security check. Let's give her a bigger Medicare deductible." His point: People probably aren't going to opt for those solutions.

Anger is something of a constant in American politics, said Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University, and circumstances like high unemployment and a big and getting bigger deficit can heighten it.

How is this going to play out Nov. 2? There's no sure way to know until the votes are counted, but Cornfield has this prediction: "People are frustrated with the economy, frustrated that we're in two wars, frustrated that we can't seem to get out of this situation. And they're going to send a message."

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