- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Health care reform isn’t the only issue negatively affecting President Obama’s once-robust approval ratings, as the nation’s skyrocketing deficit has become an increasing public worry - and a target for conservative groups.

The Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a conservative-leaning nonprofit advocacy group, on Tuesday kicked off a multimillion-dollar and multimedia advertising campaign to highlight what it calls the “threat posed by unsustainable borrowing and spending.”

The ad blitz includes a national television commercial airing on Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and CNBC, and full-page ads in The Washington Times, the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Las Vegas Review-Journal. The group also launched a Web site, www.defeatthedebt.com.

Recent polls also reflect the public’s growing uneasiness about the deficit. American voters, by a 57 percent to 37 percent margin, say health care reform should be dropped if it adds “significantly” to the deficit, according to a Quinnipiac University Polling Institute poll conducted in early August.

A Fox News poll Aug. 11-12 shows that 57 percent of overall voters say that reducing the deficit is more important than health care reform.

And only 41 percent of respondents to an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Aug. 21 said they “strongly” or “somewhat” approved of the way Mr. Obama was handling the federal deficit, with 53 percent saying they strongly or somewhat disapproved.

The nation’s concern over the deficit comes on the heels of recent projections from the White House Office of Management and Budget of a cumulative $9 trillion deficit from 2010-2019 - $2 trillion more than the administration estimated in May. A congressional budget analyst put the 10-year figure at a lower $7.14 trillion.

The poll numbers are “historically significant” because the nation’s deficit typically isn’t a significant issue for voters at election time, said Quinnipiac polling Assistant Director Peter Brown.

When former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, a Democrat, campaigned for president in 1984 vowing to raise taxes as a way to lower the deficit, voters in 49 out of 50 states rejected him. Ross Perot, who campaigned for White House twice in the 1990s with a platform of slashing the deficit, also was soundly defeated.

“But for some reason the deficit has now struck a chord,” Mr. Brown said. “We’re not in an election, so we don’t know [the long-term effects], but clearly people are concerned.”

Mr. Obama’s overall approval ratings also have slipped in recent days.

Fifty-three percent of voters questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. survey released Tuesday said they approve of how the president is handling his duties in the White House, down three points from a month ago and down eight points from June. Forty-five percent of those questioned disapprove, up five points from a month ago and up eight points from June.

The CNN poll also showed that 53 percent of independents disapproved of Mr. Obama’s job performance, marking the first time in a CNN poll that a majority of independents gave the president’s performance a thumbs down.

Mr. Obama won a majority of the vote among independents last year, which helped propel him to the White House.

“Losing their support makes it more difficult for Obama to govern from the center,” said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

A Zogby Interactive poll conducted Aug. 28-31 found that 48 percent of likely voters disapprove of the job Mr. Obama is doing.

EPI Executive Director Richard Berman, a high-profile Washington lobbyist, says his group’s ad campaign is about educating the public of “the frightening reality of the massive federal deficit.”

“People do not realize just how much $9 trillion is and what it will take for our country to get out from under that level of debt,” he said. “Americans also don’t realize how much money we now owe to foreign governments and just how unsustainable our current level of spending is.”

EPI - not to be confused with another nonprofit group with identical initials, the labor-friendly Economic Policy Institute - has waged past campaigns against Democratic Party initiatives, such as an increase in the minimum wage.

Mr. Berman, EPI’s founder, also runs the Berman & Co. public affairs firm, which has represented the restaurant, hotel, alcoholic beverage and tobacco industries.

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