Still, addressing the debt has been a difficult issue around which to galvanize momentum. There’s been no progress by policymakers in Washington, D.C.
How do Americans feel about deficits and debt? According to data from organizations like Gallup and the Peterson Foundation, people have consistently been worried about budget deficits and the national debt for decades. Strong majorities of people think the United States is on the wrong track in managing the national debt.
However, in polling by the Pew Research Center, Americans currently view the issue as important, but less so than in the past decade. When asked to rank their top policy priorities for Congress and the president, the budget deficit has dropped significantly in importance in the past several years. The share of Americans who say that reducing the budget deficit should be a top policy priority in 2019 was 48%, which is a 24-point drop from the percentage who said so in 2013.
That tells us other issues are ranking higher on the list of public policy priorities, including health care costs and the strength of Medicare, the environment, immigration and climate change.
Spending cuts in particular hold no interest to the American public. In polling last year, the Pew Research Center tested 13 different issue areas and asked Americans whether they would support increased spending, decreased spending, or keeping spending about the same. No more than 28% of responders wanted to cut funding to any of the 13 areas, which included health care, defense and environmental protection. Only cutting foreign aid reached as high as 28% in support.
When asked whether they supported smaller government providing fewer services or a bigger government providing more services, results were split down the middle. Equal numbers of people favored each.
The fact that people under 30 are more likely to support a bigger government illustrates one of the real challenges in addressing the debt. Americans don’t seem to be able to square how they would specifically reduce the debt with their general desire to do so. This dichotomy presents a real conundrum for policymakers.
Tackling the issue is especially difficult when our younger generations aren’t terribly interested in addressing the debt, at least compared to a front-page topic like climate change. After all, the longer we wait to tackle this issue, the more it will impact younger Americans.
Whenever we get serious about the debt, reforms will likely be phased in over time. That means today’s retiree population is unlikely to face the effect of the policy choices that will likely change Social Security or Medicare, reductions in spending, and tax reforms. Instead, many of the inevitable policies will much more likely affect the under-30 population.
All of this is occurring at a time when candidates running for president in the 2020 election are saying little about the national debt and any plans they might have to address it. That is despite the fact that the debt sits at over $23 trillion, the highest it’s ever been.
Any policymaker interested in addressing this issue must demonstrate real political leadership, which translates into a willingness to make tough choices and to convince the American public that there is an urgency to addressing this issue. The battle is uphill, but more important than ever.
Holly Kuzmich is executive director of The George W. Bush Institute. This column was first published in The Catalyst, a publication of The Bush Institute.