WASHINGTON – Government spending and debt are emerging as a campaign tug-of-war, with Mitt Romney blaming President Obama for a prairie fire of debt and Obama calling the charge a cowpie of distortion. House Speaker John Boehner is talking about a debt ceiling that is still more than eight months away.
What gives? In a word, polling.
The American public is growing increasingly distressed about government spending and high budgets. The issue now ranks as high on the worry scale as lack of jobs. And it worked well for Republicans in 2010, who galvanized voters with ads and fliers that drew attention to government red ink and took back control of the U.S. House after four years of Democratic rule.
Republicans are looking for that magic again.
Romney has maintained a drumbeat of criticism over Obamas handling of federal spending and the national debt in recent weeks, forcing the president on the defensive on an issue where public opinion is stacked against him.
In Iowa earlier this month, Romney said a prairie fire of debt was sweeping across the nation, threatening the countrys future. He accused Obama of inflating the debt that he had pledged to reduce and ballooning the federal budget deficit with the 2009 economic stimulus and 2010 health care bill after saying he would cut it sharply.
Obama, in campaign events in Colorado, California and Iowa this week, argued that federal spending had slowed to rates not seen in decades after he inherited a $1 trillion large debt and later pushed for $2 trillion in spending cuts. The president pointed to Romneys tax proposal, saying it would give millionaires tax cuts at the expense of the debt.
Obamas defensive crouch on debt and spending reflect a hard reality: Polls consistently show voters, including sought-after independents, placing more trust in Romney to handle the massive debt.
The nations economy remains a focal point for voters, but many remain concerned that years of heavy federal spending on guns and butter could leave the U.S. in a similar position as Greece and other European nations grappling with massive debt.
A Gallup/USA Today poll conducted May 10-13 found that overall, 82 percent of Americans called the federal budget deficit and debt extremely or very important, a level of interest comparable to unemployment.
Add to the mix Boehner, who has said when Congress is asked to raise the nations borrowing cap after the election, he will insist on spending cuts to offset the increase. Democratic leaders call it an irresponsible course of action, noting that the gridlock over the debt ceiling last year caused a downgrading of the governments credit rating.
All of this is aimed at unaligned, independent voters.
In turning attention to debt, Republicans are tapping a winning issue they deployed in congressional races two years ago. In October of 2010, Republican pollster Wes Anderson said, congressional campaigns shifted away from jobs and economy to government taking us over the cliff. The emphasis proved to be a success at the ballot box.
These days, the economy remains the pre-eminent issue in voters minds, but Anderson says middle-of-the-road voters are the targets of the big government message.
The middle is angry about where we are at, and they really see two villains on this stage; this play has two antagonists. Both of them are big, said Anderson, who is working on congressional and statewide political campaigns in several states that are presidential battlegrounds.
One is big business, big Wall Street, big insurance, big oil, just big, abusing the middle class, abusing small businesses, abusing the taxpayer. The other is big government – big government wildly running up massive deficits and debt which abuse the taxpayer, the middle class and small business.
Independent voters, he said, hold both of those central tenets to be true.