The federal government's mounting debt is often blamed on a failure of leadership. But the leaders may not be the only ones at fault.
As unhappy as Americans claim to be about the government's red ink, surveys show most voters want more government than they're willing to pay for.
If We Build It, Who Will Pay?
Even as he proposes budget cuts in some areas, President Obama wants to spend more federal money to update and improve the country's overstretched roads and bridges.
Traffic-weary commuters can only honk in support when the president calls for stepped-up investment in infrastructure, as he did in Michigan last week.
"If we want new jobs and businesses here in America, we've got to have the best transportation system. And the best communication network in the world," he said. "It's like that movie Field of Dreams. If we build it, they will come. But we've got to build it."
A survey for the Rockefeller Foundation found overwhelming support for infrastructure investment. Pollster Jay Campbell, who conducted the survey, says that backing cuts across party lines.
"In a time and place when Republicans almost pride themselves on disagreeing with everything that President Obama stands for," Campbell says, "66 percent of Republicans said that they agreed with this approach."
But even the most ardent supporters of highway spending hit the brakes when pollsters started asking if they would be willing to help pay for it.
"Where support did start to drop off — and did so quite dramatically — is when voters themselves are asked to help foot the bill," Campbell says.
Survey respondents rejected the idea of paying for roads with higher gasoline taxes by a better than 2-to-1 margin. Additional toll charges were almost as unpopular.
In other words, if you build it, Americans will come, so long as they don't have to pay for it.
Change But No Change, Please
"The overarching problem is people want everything to change, and they want nothing to change at the same time," Campbell says. "It puts elected leaders in a really tough position."
For years now, elected leaders have dealt with that challenge by indulging Americans' desire for services, without trying to collect. That's one reason we're now staring at a $1.6 trillion deficit.
While congressional Republicans are proposing dramatic cuts in discretionary spending, most Americans are hard-pressed to identify specific parts of the government they are willing to do without. A survey by the Pew Research Center found the only government program that got anything close to a cutting consensus was foreign aid.
"Foreign aid is the least popular aspect of the budget typically. And you see that in this survey as well," says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center. "But even here, you still get less than 50 percent saying, 'Cut it.' It's not overwhelming. Even though that's the largest area on our list."
Foreign aid accounts for about 1 percent of the budget.
Doherty says for the most popular programs, like Medicare and education, only about 1 in 10 people favors cuts.
Still, there are some signs the growing deficit is making people more careful about what they wish for. Fewer survey respondents now ask for more government spending in areas like defense and health care than they did just two years ago.
"I think it's a recognition that the government can't spend as it has been," Doherty says. "I think that's sinking in on the public. But taking that next step and really applying the knife to these programs is a more difficult thing."
So when political leaders seem timid about cutting the biggest government programs or asking people to pay more for them, they're simply taking their cues from the people who elected them.--