Budget Deficit Slips as Public Priority

Source: Pew Research Center

As Obama enters his final year, mixed views of his legacy

Budget deficit slips as public priorityAs Barack Obama begins his final year in office, the goal of reducing the budget deficit, which the public once ranked among the most pressing objectives for his administration, has continued its recent decline in perceived importance.

Overall, 56% say that reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress in 2016, down from 64% who said this last year. The emphasis given to the budget deficit peaked in 2013, the first year of Obama’s second term, when 72% called it a top priority. At that time, the deficit ranked behind only improving the job situation and the economy on the public’s to-do list. Today, reducing the budget deficit ranks ninth in priority out of 18 policy areas tested in the survey.

The latest national survey by Pew Research Center, conducted Jan. 7-14 among 2,009 adults, finds that strengthening the nation’s economy and defending the country from future terrorist attacks rank atop the public’s priority list: 75% each say these should be top priorities for the country. These also were the public’s two most important policy goals in 2015.

While still at the top of the list, the share citing the economy as a top priority has declined over the past several years (from a peak of 87% in 2011) as views of the nation’s economy have improved. The number citing jobs as a top policy priority also has fallen, from 84% who said this in 2011 to 64% today.

Blacks give greater priority to criminal justice reform than whites, HispanicsThe survey finds substantial partisan gaps over a number of policy priorities. Some of the biggest differences are over the importance of dealing with gun policy – 57% of Democrats view this as a top priority compared with just 13% of Republicans – and climate change (55% of Democrats vs. 14% of Republicans). By contrast, fully 76% of Republicans rate strengthening the military as a top priority, compared with just 33% of Democrats.

Republicans and Democrats also are at odds over the importance of reforming the criminal justice system, an issue that recently has received attention from lawmakers in both parties. Nearly half of Democrats (49%) view reforming the justice system as a top priority, compared with 32% of Republicans. Overall, this ranks as a lower-tier priority for the public (44% top priority).

Shifting partisan views on deficit reductionBlacks are far more likely to view revamping the criminal justice system as a key goal than are whites and Hispanics. Nearly three-quarters of blacks (73%) say this should be a top priority, compared with 48% of Hispanics and just 39% of whites.

The importance of reducing the budget deficit has lost ground among members of both parties, though Republicans continue to rate this as a higher priority than Democrats.

Since 2013, Republicans have become 14 percentage points less likely to say reducing the deficit should be a top priority, while there has been a 19-point decline among Democrats and a 17-point decline among independents. Republicans (70%) remain much more likely than independents (54%) or Democrats (48%) to say deficit reduction is a top priority, as they have been since 2012.

Obama job approval entering final yearDuring the Bush administration, Republicans tended to give less priority to reducing the budget deficit than did Democrats. In 2007, for instance, Republicans were 15 percentage points less likely than Democrats to say that reducing the budget deficit should be a top priority for the president and Congress (42% vs. 57%).

With a year to go in Obama’s presidency, the president’s job ratings continue to be very stable: 46% approve of how Obama is handling his job as president, while about as many (48%) say they disapprove. There has been little movement in Obama’s job ratings since shortly after he won reelection.

Mixed views of Obama’s legacyObama is rated lower than Bill Clinton was at the start of his final year in office (56% approved), but higher than George W. Bush was at a similar point in his presidency (31% approved). Ronald Reagan began his final year in office with 50% saying they approved of his performance (slightly higher than Obama’s current rating); Reagan’s ratings surged over the course of 1988 into the low 60s. (For more, see “Presidential Job Ratings from Ike to Obama”).

When it comes to Obama’s long-term legacy, the public offers a mixed assessment. About as many say they think he will be a successful (37%) as unsuccessful (34%) president in the long run, while 26% say it is too early to tell.

When asked a different question without an explicit option to say it is too early to tell, more say they think the Obama administration’s failures will outweigh its accomplishments (51%) than say accomplishments will outweigh failures (39%).

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