RALEIGH – The American public is disaffected with the presidency of the George W. Bush at the moment. That was among the insights offered by my fellow panelists Whit Ayers and John Miller at a John Locke Foundation election-preview event on Tuesday. The numbers are bad for Bush and the GOP no matter how you look at them: general job-approval ratings, sentiments about presidential leadership on foreign and domestic policy, the right track/wrong track question.

One point to keep in mind, however, is that “the public” does not exist except at the level of abstraction. There is in reality no single American public, no distinguishable group of people who share the same views on all major issues of national importance. While a core of Republican partisans and strongly Republican-leaning independents continue to express general support for Bush – thus his 35 percent to 40 percent number – some of them also expressed disappointment with the president on particular issues. On the other hand, some respondents who disapprove of the president’s overall performance agree with him on specific issues.

One interesting dynamic is the role that federal spending has played in Bush’s downward spiral in the polls. A new analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that the federal-budget deficit is less of a salient issue for voters now that it was in the 1990s. To some extent, this reflects changes in the international scene. The war on terror shows up in today’s polling in a couple of different places but was nonexistent as a political issue in the early 1990s. But it also reflects the fact that the voter concern was not as much about deficits per se as what the deficits symbolized: a federal government that couldn’t get its act together. Other issues, be they foreign or domestic, serve to symbolize that sentiment today.

My own view is that Americans and North Carolinians ought to be much more concerned about the long-term fiscal balance of our federal and state governments than about short-term issues. The federal budget deficit as a share of GDP is higher than the average for the past few decades, but not much. As far as accumulated deficits – debt – is concerned, former federal obligations total a little less than 40 percent of GDP. That number is too high from the standpoint of a fiscal conservative, reflecting the fact that Washington is engaged in too many extra-constitutional functions costing taxpayers far more than they derive in benefits, but again the debt load isn’t relatively high. The 40 percent is a total debt number divided by an annual measure of economic output. It is lower than it was during most of the 1980s and 1990s (yes, including the Clinton presidency). It is far lower than it was during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when federal taxpayers were trying to pay off the bill for the New Deal and World War II.

Today’s federal deficits and even today’s accumulated formal debt, in other words, are not huge threats to our economic wellbeing. And contrary to what some politicians assert, there is little correlation between federal deficits, interest rates, and economic performance. What should matter a great deal to all of us are the future obligations – Social Security and Medicare at the federal level, Medicaid and perhaps even education at the state level – that exceed expected future revenues by tens of trillions of dollars. That’s the crisis to fear. That’s what may push taxes way up or the delivery of legitimate public services down.

The Bush administration has shown little interest in current fiscal restraint. It did make efforts to confront future fiscal problems, but cut a bad deal on Medicare reform (heavy on the spending and light on the reform) and failed so far on Social Security reform. So count me among those who disapprove.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.