Public Opinion on Defense Spending

Chris Bowers has an interesting post on growing public willingness to reduce defense spending that really needs a chart to summarize Gallup’s polling on the question. They’ve asked each February for a number of years how people feel about the Pentagon budget:

As Chris says, it’s interesting to see that the public was in a pretty strongly militaristic mood before 9/11, back in February of 2001. That helps explain some of the reaction.

Beyond that, insofar as people want to use this data to urge politicians to show some sense on defense spending, I applaud their efforts. But I would also caution that this is one of many issues where I think the polling is pretty much irrelevant. The Bush administration has overseen a stead defense buildup throughout its term in office, and public opinion has been nominally hostile to this since at least February of 2003 and it would be hard to argue that they’ve paid a price for it. This is just simply the sort of thing that’s not a voting issue to anyone. Or, rather, defense spending surely is a voting (and campaign contributing) issue to people who make their living on defense contracts. Meanwhile, no matter how much Obama spends on defense, it’s inevitable that the GOP will criticize him for not spending enough. And that alone should guarantee that the “too little” numbers will tick back up in the direction of at least 30 percent.

The serious point, politically, would be that on this issue — like many others — politicians actually have an enormous amount of leeway. A decision to pare back the defense budget would meet a lot of criticism, but the public seems perfectly open to it. And at the end of the day, an administration is going to be judged on its results, not on what people thought of the FY 2010 budget back in 2009.