One of the fundamental gaps between the American people and their elected politicians can be found in perceptions of the relationship between economic growth, job creation and government spending.
In official Washington, Keynesian economics still rules, and it is simply accepted as fact that cutting government spending will hurt the economy. Politicians also assume that increasing government spending and growing deficits will lead to job creation.
However, among the voting public, such notions make about as much sense as the world Alice stumbled into when she went through the looking glass. Most voters (55 percent) believe that cutting government spending is good for the economy. Only 25 percent share the view of official Washington and believe spending cuts hurt the economy. Just 11 percent think larger deficits will lead to good economic news. These numbers have changed little since I first began asking the questions in the mid-1990s.
America's political class may be Keynesians, but America's voters are not. Just 27 percent believe that government efforts to manage the economy actually help the economy.
Two out of three voters believe job creation and economic growth are more likely to come from business leaders pursuing their own self interest rather than from decisions made by government officials to help the economy.
This gap can be seen again and again in polling on the issues of the day. During the final months of election 2010, President Obama took the Washington approach to job creation and proposed a $50 billion federal jobs program. However, 61 percent of voters thought that cutting government spending and deficits would do more to create jobs than the president's spending program. Just 28 percent thought the president's spending plan was a better way to go.
An especially revealing look at voters' perceptions can be found when we ask whether people are worried that the government will do too much or too little to try to help the economy. Not surprisingly, most people typically worry that the government will try to do too much.
But the really interesting part comes from a closer look at the views of those who fear the government will not do enough. When asked what more they would like the government to do, most say they'd like to see spending cuts and deficit reduction. Remember, that's the response from people who want the government to do more.
This understanding is one reason why so much of what passes for policy debate in Washington fails to connect with voters. The Washington perspective sees the government as the center of the national economy. Most Americans see the ever-rising cost of government as a burden for the economy to overcome.
The Washington perspective leads political insiders to believe that fiscal policy decisions must carefully weigh trade-offs between spending cuts and economic growth, deficit reduction and job creation. Most voters see spending cuts as a natural component of any serious plan to create jobs.
To connect with voters, those who hope to become political leaders will have to break with the Washington orthodoxy. A candidate who says job creation is the goal and spending cuts is the way to get there will be considered a laughing stock in Washington, but he or she will be right on target as far as the American people are concerned.