The NYT/CBS poll reveals a post-summer popularity swoon for Barack Obama, a 43 percent approval rating. I can’t get past the sub-question on the deficit. What are voters reacting to, exactly? Can it be the size of the deficit? That wouldn’t make sense, as the deficit is down 35 percent from this time last year. In Washington, the predictable shrinking of the deficit has altered the politics of the debt limit, which Republicans now want to link to concessions that are only loosely related to overall spending reduction. It’s made the deficit hawks of yore, your Erskine Bowleses and FixTheDebt.coms, totally irrelevant. You don’t hear Republicans lulz-ing at Obama for failing to “cut the deficit in half in my first four years,” because he basically did this, albeit in four and a half. But Americans, by a 19-point margin, disapprove of how the president is “handling” this. It could be that they’re trying to tell the president to spend more money; but no, in other polls, Americans say they want the debt limit to be raised only if spending is cut. My theory? As has been true for generations, Americans don’t actually know what the deficit is, conflate it with “debt,” conflate it with the economy being rotten. Those who laughed off the deficit hawks in 2011 for this reason look wiser and wiser … you know, apart from the fact that we ended up with the sequestration kludge and none of the long-term entitlement reforms that the parties might have agreed on.