Meacham: The Micawbers and Mrs. Roosevelt

The numbers are, by and large, pretty good. In the Gallup poll, President Obama's job-approval rating in May averaged 65 percent, a figure that puts him in good company. Only three other presidents elected to their first terms—Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan—have scored higher, and Obama's average tops those of his most recent predecessors: the two Bushes and Clinton. But while 55 percent have a favorable view of his stewardship of the economy in general, there are two troubling figures that foreshadow political problems for the president and, more important, intractable problems for all of us: 48 percent disapprove of his handling of the federal budget deficit, and 51 percent are unhappy with his control of federal spending. (Or, as Republicans would say, his lack thereof.)

Research by Bill McInturff and Peter Hart cited by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation puts the matter in even more telling perspective: 66 percent of registered voters say the deficit and debt pose a "very big threat to our country and its future," more than twice as many as say global warming does.

Such findings reflect a point conservatives have been making for months that you now hear more and more moderates echoing: that the vast projected deficits and rising national debt are not incidental issues, but central ones. Hardly a shocking observation, I know, but to every political question there is a season, and this is the season for worry about red ink. For many in the political class, it began last Wednesday morning where these things usually begin, with a front-page story in The New York Times in which David Leonhardt explained that the deficits and debt predate Obama—but that Obama has no convincing plan to deal with them. Then came a conversation about the piece on Charlie Rose, and by Friday David Brooks was weighing in from the center-right on the perils of profligacy.

Exhortations about deficits and debt are worthy but unglamorous. Count the clichés in the following: we are in danger of mortgaging our children's future because of the ticking entitlement time bomb that will lead us to a dark reckoning because we are living beyond our means and—did I mention we were mortgaging our children's future? (I count four, five if you double-count the canonical mortgaging-our-children's-future phrase.) When it comes to economics, many of us tend to the thinking not of Smith or Keynes or Galbraith or Laffer but to that of Wilkins Micawber, the character in Dickens's David Copperfield who, confronted by the challenges of life, always held that "something will turn up." Given the largely mysterious workings of the economy—as in politics, clarity about events in real time comes mainly in retrospect—Micawberism is a fairly rational philosophy. But there is optimism, and then there is wishful thinking, which Eleanor Roosevelt called America's "besetting sin."

The Micawbers among us have history on their side, or at least recent history. Living beyond our means was supposed to kill us in the aftermath of the Reagan years, but the 1990 budget agreement and the technology boom led to record surpluses. We were running huge deficits as the Iraq War wore on, but still managed to find the billions upon billions to rescue the financial sector.

All of which makes it difficult for people to take red-ink apocalypticism very seriously. I would argue that the disconnect between the rhetoric of fiscal discipline and the reality of spending is important not only for the obvious economic reasons, but for less evident political ones, too.

The most familiar critique of deficits and debt is that they divert investment from new ventures and sap creativity. A country that must spend money to service its creditors has that many fewer dollars to create jobs, build schools or defend itself. That is certainly true, but the more pernicious effect of huge deficits and significant debt is that they feed cynicism, for experience tells us that there is never money for a program or an interest—except when there is.

Often something does turn up—but only for the well connected and the well organized. The politically powerful will always find the ways and means to secure their benefits and protect their interests. The losers in an economy constrained by deficits and debt will be the unconnected and the disorganized. The result is resentment and, ultimately, conflict: a dearth of money may lead to a decisively fragmented politics conducted with an intensity of passion usually reserved for issues of war and peace. Then the Micawbers will look anew for something to turn up. And they may find that Mrs. Roosevelt was right after all.