Consensus and Confusion: An Examination of Public Salience and Misperceptions of U.S. Budget Deficits and National Debt
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A belief that reducing the budget deficit is important has long been a matter of exceptional public consensus in the U.S. As a political issue, the budget deficit is often the framing issue around major policy debates in Washington D.C. However, the public has deep and fundamental misperceptions about the deficit, which exceed misperceptions relating to other economic indicators. This dynamic diminishes the degree to which the public can send meaningful signals to its representatives on budgetary preferences, and weakens the democratic accountability of office-holders. Polling also indicates that mainstream economic opinion about the benefits of federal stimulus in a slow economy lacks credibility with the public. Therefore, understanding the nature and predictors of public misperceptions about the deficit, as well as the predictors of public salience with regard to budget imbalance, is important for understanding modern American politics. This dissertation improves upon the current understanding of public opinion on the budget deficit through a longitudinal examination of public salience of the budget deficit issue spanning the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and the development and analysis of a survey that resolves open questions about public perceptions of the issue. I find that public misperceptions on the deficit run deeper than previously understood, are significantly predicted by an individual’s approval or disapproval of the president, and are a significant predictor of increased salience of the issue. I also find that among various theories of the predictors of salience of the budget deficit issue to the public, agenda-setting by the media, a durable issue ownership for reducing the deficit in favor of Republicans, and substantially higher salience of the issue for men, have the most explanatory power for understanding public salience of the issue. I also find that variation in the relative size of the deficit itself is not a significant predictor of public salience, exemplifying how public opinion on the issue is alienated from democratic accountability.