8 a.m. ET: Politicians have lost elections for raising taxes. They've lost for slashing spending. And they've lost because the economy is in recession. But how many times have they lost because the budget wasn't balanced?
We may find out next year, as the deficit is rapidly becoming the most common and, possibly, the most potent Republican charge against President Obama and his fellow Democrats. In Sunday's Washington Post, Scott Wilson reported that the White House is worried Obama's spending plans "could become a political liability that defines the 2010 midterm elections." In a much-cited piece last week, David Leonhardt wrote in the New York Times that while the current fiscal mess is mostly not Obama's fault, the president "does not have a realistic plan for eliminating the deficit, despite what his advisers have suggested." And a headline in this week's Economist says "America’s debt is Barack Obama’s biggest weakness."
But does the public care? Or rather, do voters care about the deficit more than they do about fixing the still-sputtering economy, health care, Iraq and whatever other issues have propelled Democrats to commanding victories the last two election cycles? According to Pew, worries about the deficit reached their peak in 1993 and 1994, after Ross Perot's budget-focused presidential campaign and just before Republicans captured Congress pledging to promote fiscal discipline, but such concerns have steadily shrunk in the ensuing years. As of late April, 10 percent of respondents in a CNN poll called the budget deficit "the most important issue facing the country today" while 55 percent cited the economy.
Regardless of whether the budget issue has the power to decide elections on its own, concerns about the spiralling deficit will directly affect the public's perception of Obama's biggest first-term priority -- health care. A Diageo/Hotline poll released last week found that 62 percent of respondents support "a major overhaul of the U.S. health care system," but they also believed, by a 14-point margin, that "controlling the cost" of health care was more important than "expanding coverage." If Obama's plan ends up doing the latter more than the former, it may lose vital public support. Robert Samuelson writes this morning: "It's hard to know whether President Obama's health-care 'reform' is naive, hypocritical or simply dishonest. Probably all three." (Tell us what you really think, Robert.) His complaint is a common one -- Obama's plan is being pitched as a way to control spending but would actually "do the opposite."
Also on the health care front, Obama heads to Chicago today to give a key address to the American Medical Association. Attendees of the conference will find in the New York Times this morning a fortuitously-timed story, "Obama Open to Reining in Medical Suits." The piece says Obama believes malpractice reform "should be considered as part of any health care overhaul," an important olive branch to doctors and Republicans that may cause angst in Obama's own party if -- a big if -- he's really serious about it.
The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, uses Obama's jaunt to the Windy City today as a hook to analyze the costs of presidential trips. The price tag for using Air Force One for the round trip "will run about $236,000," the Tribune reports, not counting the cost of the Secret Service, motorcades and other on-the-ground expenses. The numbers are interesting, though they would likely get more play if they were broken down for a trip that wasn't so obviously part of the president's official duties. For example, how much did it cost yesterday to transport Obama to Ft. Belvoir to play golf?
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