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What is it about jobs that is hard to get?

The new Republican congressional majority is railing about repealing health care and cutting spending.  The president is wooing business and bankers. The punditry is focused on austerity and deficit reduction. But, as a new poll by the Campaign for America’s Future and the Democracy Corps shows, the voters have a clear and dramatic message for them:  focus on jobs and the economy.  Show us how America is going to be successful once more.  It’s still the jobs, Sherlock.

The survey, conducted after the Tucson shooting on January 8 but before the president’s memorial address four days later, shows the president’s personal favorability has gone up.  The president, although not particularly popular in this polarized electorate, is the most popular national politician in the country.  He runs dramatically ahead of Sarah Palin in the presidential sweepstakes and marginally ahead of Mitt Romney. 

But what is striking in the poll is the stark contrast between the priorities of voters and those of both the co-chairs of the president’s deficit commission and the Republican majority in Congress.

Congress’s priorities do not align with voters’ concerns

Asked to choose two items that were the most important economic problems facing the country, voters focused first on “high unemployment” (41%) and second on “outsourcing of jobs” (33%).  Another 18% focused on wages not keeping up with the cost of living.

Even while able to list two problems, less than one in four choices, only 23% went to “the budget deficit is big and growing,” a far remove from voters’ top concerns.  Only 15% chose “taxes are too high.”

Economy, not health care or deficit, should be top priority for Congress

When asked to name two priorities for Congress, 46% said economic recovery and jobs.  Protecting Social Security and Medicare was also a top concern (34%).  Coming in third was “making sure our children receive an education for these times” (27%). 

“Cutting spending and the size of government” was at 25%.  Only 17% thought the priority of the new Congress should be what Republicans have chosen – repealing health care.  And just 15% chose the fixation of the Beltway establishment, “reducing the size of the budget deficit.”

Jobs, growth and deficits

Deficit Commission: context dramatically changes debate

Voters are concerned about deficits, but they are looking for a growth strategy. We asked voters to choose between a priority on “creating jobs and growing the economy,” with a focus on investments, or “the need to take serious steps now to cut spending and reduce the nation’s crushing deficit,” with a focus on eliminate “red tape” and “excess spending” – the very frame of the deficit commission co-chairs.  Voters chose jobs over austerity – 58% to 35% (with 42% strongly).  Democrats favored jobs three to one; independents 53%-49%; and even Republicans 49%-43%.

Not surprisingly, the Beltway consensus has an effect.  Asked without detail about the proposal submitted by the two co-chairs of the President’s bipartisan deficit commission, a sizeable majority –  56%  – expressed support.  Yet when informed of key provisions of the plan, they turn dramatically against it (54%). 

Voters also have little appetite for the Republican priorities in the budget battle.  By two to one, they disapprove of the Republican votes to add to the deficit (repealing health care and making permanent tax cuts for the wealthy).  And a sizeable majority – 52% to 43% – oppose the announced $100-billion cuts in this year’s domestic budget that include reductions in education, student loans, energy and the environment.  Republican voters support these measures overwhelmingly (70%-22%) but independents (50%-44% against) line up with virtually unanimous Democrats (83%-15% against). 

This may contribute to what might be called the beginnings of buyers’ remorse by voters who, even before Republicans take control of the Congress, are expressing regrets.  By 48% to 34%, voters say they disapprove of how Republicans are handling their job as the majority in the House of Representatives. 

Social Security

The co-chairs of the president’s deficit commission called for cutting Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age and moving towards turning Medicare into a voucher program.  Some Democrats have joined Republicans in calling for cuts in Social Security, even though Social Security doesn’t contribute to the deficit and is a negligible part of our long-term debt problem (which is driven by health care costs).  

Social Security proposals by commission: strongly opposed

But politicians across the political spectrum –from the White House to the Congress – should be very clear:  they have no mandate to cut Social Security and voters are strongly opposed to it.  A large majority – 55% – opposes the commission co-chair’s proposals to raise the retirement age to 69 by 2075 (38% strongly oppose).  Remarkably, young people are even more opposed than seniors.  A similar majority, again led by the young, oppose the proposal to reduce future benefits of those now entering the labor force.  (And 31% strongly oppose.) At a time when the two parties are polarized on most issues, there is agreement across the political spectrum – Democrats, independents, and Republicans; liberals, moderates and conservatives all oppose the suggested reforms.  The president would be well advised to draw a bright line around these programs, and present himself as Horatio, the guardian at the gate, willing to defend them from the marauders.

The Progressive Reform Majority

After 2010, Democrats are focused on how to reassemble the majorities of 2006 and 2008.  In those elections, a broad and mobilized progressive base helped enlist gains in key swing groups.  Republicans became increasingly isolated – geographically to the South and parts of rural West, racially to whites, generationally to older voters, religiously to evangelicals and ideologically to conservatives.  In 2010, the reaction to the faltering economy and the debate over Obama’s presidency produced an extraordinary turnout among conservatives, losses in swing groups for Democrats, and some falloff in the base (particularly among union households and unmarried women).

To revive support and energy in the broad base – as well as to appeal to swing groups – the poll makes one thing very clear:  jobs are the core question.  If, as Federal Reserve President Ben Bernanke predicts, we will remain with high unemployment – at 8% or so through 2012, that broad base will be harder to mobilize, and the majorities harder to forge.  That will make it even more important to convince Americans that there is a clear, bold plan to get the country going, to create jobs, and revive the middle class.  The contrast between that course and the policies that drove us over the cliff must be detailed, repeated, and repeated, and made clear. 

Americans want both jobs and growth and deficit reduction.  But the latter is the dependent variable – dependent on jobs and growth to occur, and dependent on jobs and growth to have any political benefit.  Americans aren’t going to reward politicians for bringing the deficit down, or for cutting spending if there isn’t job growth and economic recovery.  The argument that we couldn’t create jobs, but we succeeded in “fixing” Social Security and cutting spending is not going to cut it with voters.

The Coming Debate on Spending

Democrats should oppose Republican efforts to cut 20% out of domestic discretionary spending this year, detailing both the short-term effect on the economy and the damage done to a long-term growth strategy. 

Democrats should join the debate about deficit reduction by framing the question in a fashion that is both good policy and good politics.  That is, lay out a bold plan for generating jobs and growth, featuring investments in areas vital to our future, and show how that is an essential first step towards deficit reduction.  Then focus on the real sources of our deficits:  the corporate-medical complexes that drive up health care costs, the unfunded wars and explosion of the military spending, the tax cuts that have so favored the wealthy, the top 1% that are capturing over 60% of the rewards of growth.  They should draw a red line around Social Security and Medicare. 

Americans lost trillions in savings and the value of their homes, they are sensibly fearful about their jobs, 50 million go without health insurance and costs are continuing to soar, few have significant retirement savings and those lucky enough to have pensions find them under assault.  Voters will have little patience with those who suggest that after two costly wars, top end tax cuts, feckless banking and trade policies; they must sacrifice by taking cuts in Social Security and Medicare, two programs vital to their retirement security.

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