by Richard C. Auxier, Pew Research Center

Americans are famous both for being weight conscious, and at the same time unable to come to terms successfully with their bloated waistlines. The same paradox has applied to how the public looks at budget deficits for a very long time.

Note a 2006 Pew Research Center survey that reported “Americans See Weight Problems Everywhere But In the Mirror.” An overwhelming number of the public found their fellow Americans overweight, yet significantly fewer said this was true about “the people they know.” And, of course, just four-in-ten considered themselves overweight. A follow-up report observed that among the many Americans who said that they were exercising, dieting or both, few were having much success.

This is not all that different from what polling has found consistently about how Americans look at the fight against their government’s bloated budget deficit.

The issue seems to be a political fight everyone is willing to join. The Republican Party has added deficit fighting to its political resurgence rallying cry. President Barack Obama has gone to great length to promise that his new health care plan will not add a cent to the deficit. But are Americans really ready to shed all that deficit weight?

In a Pew Research poll at the outset of the Obama administration, reducing the deficit ranked in the middle of the pack on a list of priorities. More than half the public (53%) considered deficit reduction a “top priority,” but that was far less than the 85% who considered the economy and the 82% who considered jobs a top priority. Still, significantly more Americans rated reducing the budget deficit a “top priority” (53%) than said the same about reducing taxes on the middle class (43%).1

Since then, Americans have grown quite critical of the president’s efforts in dealing with the federal budget deficit so far. In a late July survey, just 32% of Americans approved of the way Obama was handling the deficit, while a 53%-majority disapproved. Since then, as more attention has been paid in the media to the magnitude of the budget shortfall and the possible cost of health care reform, disapproval has increased to 58%, with only 31% approving of Obama’s deficit handling in a Pew Research poll released this week.

As for the actual deficit, according to CBO, it swelled enormously over the last fiscal year to an estimated $1.4 trillion, $950 billion more than its already high level in FY 2008 as the Bush administration drew to a close. A major part of the 2009 jump was produced by the cratering of federal tax and other revenue collections to more than a 50-year low relative to GDP. But the politics of the $787-billion stimulus package and health care legislation may have served to heighten Americans’ stated concern about government spending — at least in the aggregate.

According to an October ABC/Washington Post poll, 57% of Americans say avoiding a big increase in the federal budget deficit is more important than increasing federal spending to improve the economy. A September Bloomberg poll found 62% saying they “would be willing to risk a longer-lasting recession to avoid more government spending.”

This stated preference for fiscal discipline — in the abstract — is far from new. Back in 2007 — when Americans were even less pleased with their president’s handling of the federal deficit — Americans were asked by Pew Research what was the best way to reduce the deficit. Seven-in-ten choose spending cuts, with 33% preferring reductions in military spending and 36% recommending a reduction in domestic spending. But the consensus evaporates when the questions get down to particulars.

For example, in the same July poll in which Americans expressed their displeasure with President Obama over the deficit, majorities favored more spending in three of four areas asked about. Spending more on health care was rated a higher priority than reducing the budget deficit by a 55%-to-44% margin. The public also considered increased spending on education and economic recovery to be more important than reducing the deficit by similar margins. Only government spending on new energy technology was considered to be a lesser priority than deficit-fighting measures.

And on specific spending measures, the American public can seem even more gluttonous. In a June Pew Research survey, Americans were asked “if you were making up the budget for the federal government this year” would you increase or decrease spending, and then given a list of programs. Health care? An overwhelming 85% want more (61%) or the same (24%) level of spending on that. Energy? Fully three quarters want more (41%) or the same (35%) level of spending.

In fact, a majority wants more government funds for health care, energy, education (67%), veterans’ benefits (63%) and Medicare (53%), while pluralities would boost outlays for military defense (40%), assistance for the unemployed (44%), combating crime (45%) and environmental protection (43%). The only programs asked about where more than just a quarter of the public was intent on decreasing government spending were economic assistance to needy people around the world (26% increase, 34% decrease, 33% same) and funding for the State Department and American embassies (9% increase, 28% decrease, 50% same). For all other programs listed above, fewer than 20% of Americans were in favor of decreasing the much maligned government spending.

A quick look at where the feds actually spend their money puts the problem into still clearer focus. Even with the anti-recession spending (an estimated $154 billion in FY 2009) more than half of the budget (56%) is accounted for by four programs. In declining order of expense they are: defense, social security benefit payments, Medicare and Medicaid. Add in interest on debt owed to the public, an inescapable outlay, and you’ve covered roughly 62% of the budget. Yet few are now — or have ever been — ready to take a hatchet to these core programs.

In regard to Medicare, just 6% say the government should cut spending. This has been the case for at least a decade, as Pew Research found only 8% in favor of decreasing Medicare spending in 1997, and just 2% in 2001. Indeed, opponents of health care reform today often cite cuts in Medicare as an important reason for their opposition.

There was a time when the public was ready to put military spending on the chopping block. At the end of the Cold War, in 1990, a 43%-plurality of Americans favored decreasing military spending. However, support for cuts waned in the 1990s and after Sept. 11, in February 2002, 60% of Americans again supported increasing military spending. Currently, just 18% favor cutting military spending while 77% would increase spending or keep it at the same level.

If not spending cuts, would America’s country of deficit hawks turn to raising revenue? Hardly. In the early 2007 survey only 9% of Americans said tax increases were the best option to reduce the deficit.

Americans are okay with some tax increases, just as long as it means more government spending. In an October Pew Research survey, 58% of Americans were in favor of raising taxes on families earning above $350,000 as a way to pay for changes to the health care system. Actually, most Americans are just fine with raising taxes on the rich in general. In a March poll 61% said it was the right thing to raise taxes on people with household incomes of at least $200,000.

But it’s a different story when you ask about the other 99% or so Americans. An overwhelming 82% said it was the right thing to reduce taxes for middle and lower income households.

Like the host of dietary and exercise products Americans annually purchase, a politician talking up deficit reduction may be a good buy in a campaign. But, just like the treadmill collecting dust and the increasing fast food tabs, it remains to be seen if Americans will ever be willing to support the steps necessary to cut the deficit fat.

1. The January 2009 poll did, however, reveal a notable partisan shift accompanying the changing of the White House guard. In a January 2008 poll, Democrats (64%) were considerably more likely than Republicans (52%) to say the deficit was a top priority. A year and a new president later, Democrats had lost some of their budgetary zeal and the gap disappeared.