There is an instinctive conclusion among the American public that President Obama's stimulus package has failed to create a sustained recovery. Unemployment has increased, not declined; consumers have retrenched; housing starts have crashed along with mortgage applications; and there is a fear that a double-dip recession may very well be in the pipeline. The public perception, reflected in Pew Research/National Journal polls, is that the measures to combat the Great Recession have mostly helped large banks and financial institutions, and that's a view common to Republicans (75 percent) and Democrats (73 percent). Only one third of either political leaning thinks government policies have done a great deal or a fair amount for the poor.
There is another instinctive conclusion among the American people. It is that the national deficit, and the debts we have accumulated, are of critical political importance. On the national debt, the money the government has spent without the tax revenues to pay for it has produced mind-numbing numbers so large as to be disconnected from reality. Zeros from here to infinity. The sums are hard to describe; it is hard to describe an elephant, but you know one when you see one. The public knows that, shuffle the numbers as you may, the level of debt is unsustainable.
Who could be surprised since millions of voters have discovered that for themselves? As one realizes the morning after the night before, there is an unavoidable penalty for excess. It is unnerving to wake up and learn that you have a mortgage on your home that exceeds the value of the property. Or, and too often both, you have a credit card line that you cannot repay and the issuer has you on the rack for ever bigger compound interest on the debt. The lesson has been well and truly learned that debt catches up with you. Millions understand that they are just going to have to find a way to live within their means—and then still eke out some savings to pay down debt. And there are well over 14 million Americans without a paying job, so the level of discontent is very high. Just how are they going to regain control of their lives?
In a usnews.com post on July 26, Jodie Allen of the Pew Research Center reported that in recent weeks more academic and market economists have been urging the government to defer budget cuts and tax increases and instead provide additional stimulus to a still-fragile economy, some by continuing the Bush tax cuts. But among the public there has been a suggestive shift of opinion the other way, reflecting worries about debt. "Deficit and government spending" has jumped from 10th or 11th place as a priority for the federal government to one that is second only to job creation and economic growth. The drift of opinion is manifest in other recent polls. For instance, a CBS poll conducted July 9-12 assessed the most important problem facing the country as the economy and jobs (38 percent), with concern about the budget deficit and national debt way down at 5 percent. Yet CNN (July 16-21) has 47 percent preoccupied first with the economy, and 13 percent with the federal deficit. In a recent Time magazine poll, two thirds of the respondents say they oppose a second government stimulus program and more than half say the country would have been better off without the first one.
People see the stimulus, fashioned and passed by Congress in such a hurry, as a metaphor for wasted money. They are highly critical about the lack of discipline among our political leaders. The question that naturally arises is how to forestall a long-term economic decline.
The Fed has lowered rates dramatically to keep the economy ticking and maybe continue the painfully slow recovery, but at the receiving end there is no feeling of relief at all. People know that the stimulus is about to stop stimulating. They know that money is petering out. They know that states are preparing to cut $200 billion to balance their budgets. They realize that the Great Recession has wiped out huge amounts of wealth and that, unlike other recessions, this will not be followed by the kind of economic boom when people who had sat on their money during the lean years unleash pent-up demand for all sorts of goods and services.