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How Americans view the deficit

The National Debt Clock, a billboard-size digital display showing the increasing U.S. debt, near an office of the Internal Revenue Service on Sixth Avenue July 26, 2011 in New York.

Jeremy Hobson: Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan will be in Las Vegas today for a campaign fundraiser. Over the last few days he's been barnstorming the country talking about the need for fiscal responsibility. Here he is yesterday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Paul Ryan: President Obama has given us four years of trillion-dollar-plus deficits. He is making matters worse and he is spending our children into a diminished future.

So does that message resonate with Americans? That's the question we're asking in today's edition of Attitude Check, our weekly partnership with the polling firm Gallup. Frank Newport is editor-in-chief at Gallup and he joins us now. Good morning.

Frank Newport: Good morning.

Hobson: So Frank, how much do Americans really care about the federal deficit?

Newport: If you say open endedly what's the most important problem facing the country or how do you recommend that we fix the U.S. economy, relatively few people spontaneously mention the deficit as a major problem. But if you put the deficit in a list, which we recently did, and say how much of a or a priority should all the following be for the next president -- whoever that might be -- the deficit popped up right there below creating jobs and stopping corruption in government is No. 3 in the list. So I think in the back of their minds, Americans would agree with Paul Ryan, for example, that the deficit is a big issue. But it's not the thing that they think of first when they think about the economy.

Hobson: Are they willing to make the big sacrifices that would be necessary to really make a dent in the deficit?

Newport: No, they would not. That's the central paradox of what we look at in our data. While Americans agree it's a big problem -- for example Americans agree that Medicare is a big problem. When you get to the specifics about cutting back spending on almost anything that people value -- like Social Security and like Medicare, or even going to change in Medicare where you have vouchers or give people amount of money, some of the things the new VP is talking about -- Americans kind of recoil and say oh no don't change that, we like the status quo.

Hobson: Frank, there's a big debt clock not far from where I sit right now in New York that just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. Has the attitude about the debt and the deficit changed over time?

Newport: It hasn't changed a lot. It's always been a lurking problem. You can go back to Ross Perot, who had his third-party candidacy in 1992 -- got 19 percent of the popular vote -- and of course one of his central points was we have a big deficit and we need to do something about it along with trade imbalances. But Americans at that point of course didn't elect him president and it's been lurking in their minds ever since, but it's just hard for us to find evidence in the data that Americans say yes, let's do something dramatic and different at this very moment to try to reduce the deficit.

Hobson: Let me ask you about one more thing before I let you go in a totally different topic, Frank. In 1974, I gather, Gallup asked American women if they would prefer to have a job outside of the home or stay home and take care of the family and at that point 60 percent said they would stay home. What is the new data on that?

Newport: A-ha! We just updated that within the last couple of weeks and it has flipped as we would imagine, however not nearly as much as some people might think. The precise numbers are 51 percent, just a bare majority of Americans, women, say given their druthers, they would work outside of their home; 44 percent say that they would actually want to stay home and then the rest say they don't have an opinion. So though it has moved in the opposite direction, that's not as dramatic a shift as I think some people might have imagined.

Hobson: Frank Newport, editor-in-chief at Gallup, thanks a lot.

Newport: My pleasure.

About the author

Frank Newport, Ph.D., is the editor-in-chief at Gallup and appears regularly on Marketplace.
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I appreciate your inclusion of government corruption in the top three, but as always you fail to go the next step and conclude that Americans don't see a need for cuts in spending and entitlements because the deficit was created almost entirely by corporate fraud and corporate tax evasion. If you phrased the question showing that the government loses trillions of dollars every year to these two things you will get 100% of people saying that is the solution.

Gallup may well consider that people are seeing it as a biased polling company and as such people are regarding polls less and less.

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