Is Obama Misreading the Public?

In a new poll, Gallup asks voters to rank their priorities for the next president. Unsurprisingly, the top answer is “jobs,” followed by “reducing corruption in the federal government,” and “reducing the federal budget deficit.” Here are the full results:

Writing at the Washington Examiner, Byron York cites this as evidence that the Obama campaign is out of step with the public:

The point is that Americans prioritize what they want their political leaders to do, and right now, the things that are on top of the voters’ list — creating jobs, reducing corruption, and cutting the deficit — are issues that Mitt Romney and Republicans in Congress have been stressing every day. And the goals the president has been stressing are simply not at the top of voters’ concerns.

This might be true for reducing corruption, which is a key theme for Mitt Romney. But I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say that voters are genuinely concerned with cutting the deficit, and it’s simply wrong to claim that President Obama hasn’t been stressing job creation. The president’s campaign speeches are saturated with talk of job creation, from emphasizing the performance of the last three-and-a-half years to pushing the American Jobs Act. Like the Romney campaign, the Obama team understands that voters want the government to do something about “jobs.” And so it's central to their message.

We have to be careful when we discuss how the public perceives the deficit. It’s not clear, to me at least, that voters understand the “deficit” as the difference between outlays and revenues. To borrow a citation from Jonathan Bernstein, look to the famous town hall-style debate in 1992, when one audience member asked George H.W. Bush how the national debt “personally affected” him. Read literally, this question doesn’t make any sense. But if you hear “national debt” as a synonym for “poor economy,” then the question is perfectly clear.

When voters say they want to cut the deficit, what they likely mean is that they want to improve the economy. And since the Obama campaign is focused on that as well, it’s fair to say that there is no incongruity between President Obama and the desires of the American public. The real question is whether voters believe that Obama can actually deliver on fixing the economy.