The debt debate is just hibernating

Hibernation.

President Obama will release his budget for the next fiscal year on Mar. 4 – what is known as "Budget Day" in Washington, DC. That’s more than a week away, but we already have a sense of what it will look like.

In the last fiscal year’s budget, there was a little something for politicians who are worried about the size of the deficit. President Obama said he would change the way the government calculates Social Security payments. The White House says that will not be in this fiscal year’s budget.

The thing about the deficit is, it’s not something Americans care about all the time. Carroll Doherty, who is the Pew Research Center’s director of political research, tracks how interested voters are in the deficit.

"It goes up in times when you see a great deal of attention to it," he says.

And several groups have been trying to get us to pay attention to it. One of them is Fix the Debt, which keeps a close eye on the president’s budget.

"It’s very symbolic, and it shows what the White House’s priorities are," says Maya MacGuineas, the president of Fix the Debt.

According to her, Americans care about the deficit more when the numbers are really big.

"The nation really woke up and started paying attention to the fiscal challenges when we hit trillion-dollar deficits around the economic crisis," she says.

But a new forecast from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) shows the deficit is down, and it’ll stay down for a couple of years at least, which means deficit reduction probably won’t be en vogue again for a while.

"For better or for worse, Washington tends to focus on the next election and the next month, not next decade," says Matt Slaughter, Signal Companies’ Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

You see, the deficit can seem abstract, and Paul Light, a politics professor at NYU, says it doesn’t have a constituency. Finding a solution to big deficits will never be popular, he argues, because it would require "a sacrifice from everybody, and we are not in the sacrificing mood right now."

That probably won’t change for at least one election cycle, and maybe two, depending on how much faith you put in the CBO’s projections.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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