Agenda-Setting and the Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop

Greg Sargent has had two posts about what he calls the “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop.” In brief:

The relentless bipartisan focus on the deficit convinces voters to be worried about it, which in turn leads lawmakers to spend still more time talking about it and less time talking about the economy.

In his most recent post, he notes this National Journal analysis that found a rise in stories about the deficit and a decline in stories about unemployment.  Here’s their graph:


The former likely correlates with the increasing number of people who prioritize the deficit as the country’s most important issue (from Gallup):

The latter likely correlates with the decreasing number who prioritize unemployment:

I want to connect Sargent’s point to a venerable concept in the study of media and public opinion: agenda-setting.  Here’s the Wikipedia overview.  The idea is straightforward: the more news coverage of an issue, the more the public thinks that issue is important.  The news coverage can be driven by salient real-life events, by the media’s own agenda, or by the agenda of politicians, which is typically reported in the media.  In this case, media coverage largely reflects the attention given to the deficit by politicians.

Here are two studies that show the agenda-setting effect for the deficit in particular: one (pdf) on the period from 1994-1996 by Amy Jasperson and colleagues, and one (pdf) on Canada by Stuart Soroka.  Both find that as media coverage increased, the public saw the deficit as a more important problem.

The second part of Sargent’s thesis is harder to prove—namely, that the more the public perceives the deficit is important, the more policymakers talk about it (i.e., the feedback).  There is some evidence that, on certain issues, the public’s agenda can drive the media’s agenda.  See this piece (gated) by Joseph Uscinski (who cites other relevant studies):

Issue areas comprised of spectacular events, such as defense, will be reported by the media and subsequently affect the salience the audience assigns to those issues. In issues not normally comprised of spectacular and singular events, such as energy and environment, public issue concerns appear to drive issue coverage in the news. Issues such as transportation and education, which comprise few spectacular events and little public concern, will receive sparse coverage in the media.

Uscinski doesn’t look at the deficit in particular, or the effects of the public’s agenda on the politician’s agenda.  But he provides evidence that some kind of feedback can occur.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the public’s agenda could help drive the media’s and politicians’ agendas on this issue. Here’s my guess. Republican politicians today talk about reducing the deficit mainly because (a) they want to reduce the size of government  and (b) they perceive it as a useful cudgel with which to bash Obama.  The former reflects ideology, not public opinion.  But the latter does reflect public opinion: the deficit is a useful cudgel only when the public is concerned about the deficit.  As the public’s concern increases, it gives the GOP a greater incentive to continue to emphasize the issue.

The Obama administration also appears to want to reduce the deficit.  I think this is mostly a reaction to public opinion.  The Obama administration is focused on political independents and, according to the Gallup data, almost as many independents prioritize the federal budget (21%) as prioritize the economy (23%).

On the whole, I think the impact of politicians and the media on the public’s agenda is the larger of the two effects implicit in the feedback loop.  In short, if you want to know what the public cares about, listen to what politicians and news outlets are talking about.

2 Responses to Agenda-Setting and the Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop

  1. Andrew Gelman May 19, 2011 at 10:01 am #


    Do you really think Republican politicians want to reduce the size of government? They didn’t do much of this when they were in power. My guess is that Republican politicians are like many voters in that they like the idea of reducing the size of government, but they don’t actually want to cut much; rather, they have a bunch of things they’d like to increase spending on (remember the Bridge to Nowhere, not to mention a couple of wars) which happen to cost more than the cuts they are willing to consider.

    I’m not trying to say that Republicans politicians are wrong in their preferences, just expressing doubt that they want to reduce the size of government. If a party doesn’t do X when they’re in power, my first guess is that they don’t want X.

  2. John Sides May 19, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    Andy: Good question. My sense is that many of the current crop of Republicans actually want to reduce the size of government and have it spend less money. That is their sincere preference. But certainly history doesn’t really suggest that previous generations of Republican politicians have been successful in doing this, even when they had unified control of government under George W. Bush.