The U.S. federal budget deficit has shrunk steadily since 2009. After peaking at 9.8% of GDP in ’09, the deficit fell year after year, to just 2.4% of GDP by 2015. Those are objective, official numbers. Plain math. Indisputable. So true that even Republicans in Congress are taking credit for it.
Yet, for some reason, over 60% of Americans believe the federal budget deficit has grown – and most of those believe it has grown “a lot” – under President Obama’s administration. It would be like asking people in your neighborhood, the day after a torrential down pour, “Did it rain yesterday?” If even one person looked you in the eye and said, “No, it was sunny all day,” you’d think they were losing it. What if half the people on your street said that? You should move.
And yet, despite empirical evidence to the contrary, a majority of our respondents believe the deficit has increased since President Obama took office. Why?
Because people are blinded by the current political environment. That’s why.
We have become so inundated with information – and misinformation – that few of us know what’s true anymore. If I had a nickel for every time I referred someone to Snopes to debunk something they shared on Facebook or a group email, I could lower the deficit even further.
But who can blame people for getting it wrong? With hundreds of posts scrolling across our social media feeds and seemingly-infinite so-called “news” organizations online, how can the average person know who to trust or what to believe? Who has the time to fact-check everything they read, when they’re busy just trying to make ends meet? Unless you’re in the business of politics or media, you’re probably flying blind.
So, to stay sane, people gravitate toward simple – typically binary – camps. You either trust everything you hear on Fox News or your trust everything you hear on MSNBC. If it has anything to do with President Obama, it’s either unimpeachably-good or categorically-bad.
And this brings us back to the deficit.
The concept of a ‘federal budget deficit’ may not be easily grasped by everyone. To the layperson, it seems like a topic that can be twisted and distorted by whichever political figure or pundit has the microphone. Rather than make sense of it all, people revert to their corners of the political battlefield.
Consider that 86% of people who self-identify as “Conservative” said the deficit has grown under President Obama’s watch, versus 7% who correctly said it shrunk and 7% who didn’t know. On the flip side, 39% of “Liberal” respondents said that the deficit has shrunk, 31% said it grew, and 30% didn’t know. Only 12% of respondents who get most of their cable news from Fox got the answer right. 50% of people who watch MSNBC got it right. See a pattern here?
It’s worth noting how many Liberal respondents are still on the wrong side of this question. Are they just a bunch of raging left-wing Obama haters? I don’t think so. According to our data, only 34% of Liberals are even concerned about the deficit (compared to 90% of Conservatives). Many Liberals would say that they want government to spend more, not less, on public services and programs. It’s quite possible that these Liberal respondents defaulted to what they thought was a pro-Obama position – ‘Yes the deficit grew under the President’s watch and that’s a good thing.’ You may have a different theory but I’m sticking with this one.
However you slice it, the fact remains that the majority of Americans – and a large chunk on both sides of the political aisle – are squarely wrong about the federal deficit. Good luck convincing them otherwise. Everyone’s digging their heels in, blocking out any message that doesn’t fit their comfortable narrative. Facts be damned.