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Public Opinion and the Debt Ceiling Fight

- August 1, 2011


bq. The debt ceiling debate has tarnished the image of both President Obama and Speaker Boehner – about a third say they have come to have a less favorable view of each leader in recent weeks, while relatively few say their impressions have improved. In both cases, a plurality says their opinion of these key leaders has not changed as a result of the budget negotiations.

In particular, 37% said that their opinion of Obama had become less favorable and 18% said it had become more favorable (44% said it “no change”).  So you would think from this that Obama’s overall job approval might have declined in the past month or so — the period of time during which media coverage of the debt ceiling peaked.  In fact, most of the approximately 7-point decline in Obama’s approval rating since the killing of Osama bin Laden took place in May and June — when the Biden talks were still ongoing, before Obama started convening meetings with congressional leaders at the White House, before Boehner walked out of negotiations, etc.  One apples-to-apples comparison: Gallup’s data suggest a 43% approval rating for Obama at the end of June.  At the end of July, that number was no different: 42%.

There are two lessons here.  First, many if not most Americans don’t like politics very much.  They do not understand why all the disagreement and fighting is necessary.  This is well-known, of course.  For some relevant political science, see John Hibbing’s and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse’s Stealth Democracy.  They write that Americans

are consequently turned off by political debate and deal making that presuppose an absence of consensus. People believe these activities would be unnecessary if if decision makers were in tune with the (consensual) public interest rather than cacophonous special interests.

Second, and more importantly, public opinion about political processes doesn’t have big consequences.  It didn’t matter much during the health care debate, for example.  And there isn’t much evidence that it cost Obama a lot of support during the debt ceiling fight, even if the public found that fight to be “ridiculous,” “stupid,” or “disgusting.”

But note the corollary: Obama allegedly wants to seek bipartisan solutions that allow him to be seen, particularly by independents, as “making Washington work.”  This just doesn’t work.  Not only because such solutions are hard to come by, but because the public cares more about fixing stuff than about how that stuff gets fixed.  For this reason, a robust economy is a thousand times more helpful to Obama than are his bipartisan credentials.  And, for that matter, it’s more beneficial for members of Congress too.  The economy structures everything.

The real political benefit to this deal is how it affects campaign strategy in 2012, when the presidential race will probably be close and campaign tactics might make the difference.  For Obama, the deal makes issues relating to the deficit and the size of government more advantageous for him and less advantageous for Republicans.  Should Republicans need some issue besides the economy to campaign on, it becomes harder for to tag Obama as someone unconcerned about the national debt.  And, as I argued last week, should Obama need to campaign on this issue, the debt ceiling deal and the associated deficit reduction will help him do that.