Massive, growing debt looms over U.S. politics

Lesley Clark

July 26, 2012 

  • More information This story was reported by Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman, Anna M. Tinsley of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Ezra Romero of The Fresno Bee, Lindsay Ruebens of The Charlotte Observer, Grant Martin of The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in Bluffton, S.C., Steve Kraske and Dave Helling of The Kansas City Star and Lesley Clark of the Washington Bureau. It was written by Clark.
  • More information METHODOLOGY: The McClatchy-Marist survey of 1,214 adults was conducted June 18-26. Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the continental United States were interviewed by telephone. Telephone numbers were selected based on a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this landline sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cellphone numbers. The two samples were then combined. Results are statistically significant within 3 percentage points. There are 1,023 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within 3.5 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.

For decades, Americans demanded and got more government than they paid for. Now the accumulated debt looms over the country’s politics and stymies its government.

Chastened by debt crises in Europe and worried that rising debt at home is a drag on an already fragile economy, Americans want to cut annual deficits and the debt that’s piled up to close to $16 trillion. They just can’t agree how it should be done, and their division helps gridlock Washington over critical questions of taxes and spending.

To learn whether there’s any path to breaking the logjam and solving some of the government’s intractable problems, McClatchy commissioned an in-depth national poll and interviewed voters in a dozen states, from small towns to big cities.

Some see the debt as the product of a generation’s demands.

“A lot of that debt is what we owe ourselves for the standard of living that we all enjoy,” said Joe Brosig, a 71-year-old retired landscaper from San Angelo, Texas. “We are the ones that enjoy the amenities that improve our lives, such as infrastructure and services.”

More see it as a bill that’s coming due, and the sooner the country starts paying it, the better.

JoLinda Fridley, 44, an administrative assistant in Emmett, Idaho, is worried after watching husband, Shawn, get laid off after 20 years at Hewlett Packard. She thinks lifting the cloud of debt would help the economy recover. “If we get a handle on the debt and start paying it off, I feel the economy would get better,” she said. “It’s a trickle-down effect.”

George Grant, 83, a retired research scientist from Sunnyvale, Calif., considers government spending the most critical issue facing the nation. “The government spends more than they have,” he said. “They spend it everywhere.”

In Henrico, N.C., retired school superintendent Donald Springle, 80, calls the debt the biggest issue in the land.

“We just can’t continue to pay 40 percent of everything we do to a foreign government and pay back in interest,” he said. “Sooner or later, it’s going to bankrupt the country, and my children and grandchildren are going to have to pay off the bill. Somebody’s got to pay it. It’s got to stop."

Who will pay that bill?

Bipartisan commissions urge the government to cut spending and raise some taxes to affect any significant cuts to the debt, but high-level talks last summer to achieve such a deal collapsed amid partisan finger-pointing. The two political parties are no closer to resolution than they were a year ago.

The McClatchy-Marist poll found widespread agreement that the nation’s debt is a top problem – it ranked just below the economy and jobs, and above such other issues as health care, energy, taxes, housing and immigration. The poll also found widely different views on where spending should be cut or taxes raised.

“Everyone sees the same problems, but when it comes to addressing the issue by changing the programs that people are most interested in, they think that more money should go to those problems or they should be maintained,” said Barbara Carvalho, director of the Marist Poll.

Few volunteer, and many fear they will bear the brunt.

Cheryl Dsouza is one of those who fears the debt will land at her door. As a 46-year-old divorced mother of two juggling a part-time job and college classes, she wonders what additional help the government might be able to provide if it weren’t already mired in debt.

“I feel like when the government is in a crisis, they have to watch their budget and cut back on resources,” said Dsouza, who lives in the east Texas city of Frankston. “When we have massive debt, the government can’t help people. They are in crisis and have to trim what they don’t need to pay for what they do need.”

Near Dallas, Peggy Heath, 57, worries that the mounting debt will force cuts in Social Security before she and her husband reach retirement age.

“It makes me sick. It’s so much money I don’t know how it could possibly be repaid,” said Heath. “My husband thinks he’ll have to work for the rest of his life. I’m not so sure he’s wrong.’’

While Medicare and Social Security are two of the biggest parts of the budget, they’re largely off limits politically. Just 19 percent of voters think the country spends too much on Medicare; just 13 percent say that about Social Security.

“People can barely get by on what they get as it is,” said Peggy Anderson, 59, a Payne Springs, Texas, woman who has multiple sclerosis and is unable to work. “They need to quit borrowing from Social Security.”

Some voters blame the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for running up the national tab.

“The debt would not be so high if we would quit going off on these unnecessary wars,” said Cynthia Carter, 64, a retired teacher from Irmo, S.C.

But there is no broad appetite for cutting the military budget.

Just one in three voters thinks the country spends too much on defense, according to the McClatchy-Marist poll. Even among Democrats, 40 percent believe the Pentagon spends too much, but 55 percent believe it spends the right amount or too little.

When it comes to raising taxes, the poll suggests some support for increasing taxes for big business and Wall Street.

But voters split over whether they’d pay more themselves.

“By golly, listen, I‘d want them spent the right way,” said Mildred Cooke, a retired teacher in Columbia, Mo. “I wouldn’t want them handed out for somebody to spend the wrong way.”

The poll finds Cooke in a slim majority, with 51 percent willing to pay more in taxes, under the condition that those making more than $250,000 also pay more in taxes. Among Democrats, 57 percent were willing to pay more. Republicans were opposed, with 53 percent unwilling to pay more.

“Good heavens, if they can’t spend wisely the money they have, why would I expect they’d do a good job with more money?” asked Sandra Bachmann, 47, a database manager from Cary, N.C., who identified herself as an independent. “It’s throwing money at a problem."

Email:lclark@mcclatchydc.com; twitter @lesleyclark

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