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Total Incoherence on Deficit Politics

Scott Rasmussen and Doug Schoen had a completely mystifying op-ed about Obama's political standing in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. On the one hand, they argue that his biggest political problem is unemployment (correctly in my mind):

The announcement a week ago of 10.2% unemployment is a significant political event for President Barack Obama. It could well usher in a particularly serious crisis for his political standing, influence and ability to advance his agenda.

Double-digit unemployment drove Ronald Reagan's disapproval ratings in October 1982 up to a record high 54%. It was only when unemployment dropped to 7.3%, roughly two years later, that he was able to win a landslide victory over Democratic challenger Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election.

Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt's success in the 1930s in reducing the 25% unemployment rate he inherited down to the mid-teens was almost certainly responsible for his success in the 1934 midterm elections and in the 1936 presidential elections.

Mr. Obama faces a similar challenge. A detailed look at the available survey data suggests that the difficulties may be more substantial than those suggested by the recent off-year elections.

Mr. Obama's approval among likely voters has dropped to the low-50s in most polls, and the most recent Rasmussen Reports poll of likely voters shows him slightly below the 50% mark. This is a relatively low rating for new presidents. Mr. Obama's approval rating began to slide in a serious way in early July, triggered by a bad unemployment report.

This analysis so closely resembled John Judis's piece on the same subject I was about to e-mail him to let him know about it. (Both pieces even make the reasonable argument that health care is far less capable of boosting Obama's political standing than the amount of time he's spending on it would suggest.) Which makes it bizarre that one of the key solutions Rasmussen and Schoen propose isn't a focus on job creation but ... reducing the deficit:

Deficit reduction and reining in spending are critically important priorities for the vast majority of the electorate. Indeed, according to a Rasmussen Reports Poll conducted at the end of last month, voters say deficit reduction is most important and health care is a distant second. ...

Unless Mr. Obama changes his approach and starts governing in a more fiscally conservative, bipartisan manner, the independents that provided his margin of victory in 2008 and gave the Democrats control of Congress will likely swing back to the Republicans, putting Democratic control of Congress in real jeopardy.

In practice, you can of course roll out both job-creation initiatives and deficit-reduction initiatives. I'm guessing the administration will do a bit of both in the coming months. But you've also got to make a judgment about which is the bigger concern, since the two projects work at obvious cross-purposes: reducing the deficit tends to hurt job growth during a recession or weak recovery; job-boosting policies tend to cost money. So, depending on where you cast your lot, you will either take job-creation seriously and make your deficit-reduction efforts fairly superficial, or vice versa.

Now it's one thing to opt for deficit-reduction if you're someone like David Brooks, who sees the deficit as the bigger political problem. But if, like Rasmussen and Schoen, you think jobs are where it's at, it makes little sense to pitch deficit-cutting as the solution.