White House debt ceiling talks take place with public in a sour mood

As President Obama and congressional leaders meet Saturday at the White House, polls show the public sharply divided on the debt problem’s urgency, down on both parties, and favoring more compromise.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) leaves after his news conference about the debt limit on Capitol Hill in Washington on Friday.

As President Obama and congressional leaders meet Saturday at the White House, trying to restart collapsed negotiations to avoid a government default, polls show the public sharply divided on the debt problem’s urgency, in a sour mood, and favoring more compromise between the parties.

Negotiations between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama collapsed Friday afternoon. They had been working to hammer out a deal to reduce the nation’s debt and to increase the US debt ceiling to avert an August 2 default when the country is slated to run out of cash.

New polling data highlights the political challenges for both sides in the negotiations who were quick to blame each other for the breakdown in talks. Obama said Speaker Boehner had walked away from a deal that would have averted default and cut spending by $2.6 trillion. “Can they say yes to anything?” the president asked angrily at a hastily called Friday afternoon press conference.

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Boehner charged “The White House moved the goalposts,” by seeking $400 billion more in revenue as part of the deal.

While both the President and Speaker Boehner say it is critical to raise the debt limit to avoid a default, the public feels less urgency.

That affects the climate for reaching a politically painful deal. A Pew Research Center poll released last week found that 40 percent of the public felt it was “essential” to raise the debt limit by August 2 to avoid a crisis. But an almost equal number – 39 percent – felt the country could go past that date without major economic problems.

There is a clear partisan split in the way the debt problem is viewed, complicating efforts at arriving at a deal. Pew reported that by a 53 to 30 percent margin, Republicans said it will not be a major problem if the debt ceiling is not raised by August 2. Democrats by a 56 to 28 percent margin felt it would be a problem if the limit is not increased.

Tea party Republicans are by far the most unconcerned about the potential fallout of missing the August 2 deadline, Pew found, with some 65 percent saying that would not be a problem. That number is a key issue for Speaker Boehner who has to convince his 87-member freshman class, many elected with tea party movement support, to accept any agreement he reaches with the White House.

While Boehner has to worry about his right flank, Obama has to worry about his left, according to a CNN/ORC International Poll released Friday. It found that Obama’s approval rating had slipped to 45 percent, down 3 percentage points from June. His 54 percent disapproval level contains “signs of a stirring discontent on the left,” CNN Polling Director Keating Holland said in a statement.

"Thirty-eight percent say they disapprove because President Obama has been too liberal, but 13 percent say they disapprove of Obama because he has not been liberal enough – nearly double what it was in May, when the question was last asked, and the first time that number has hit double digits in Obama's presidency,” Keating said.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is concerned that President Obama is too willing to make cuts in programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to get Speaker Boehner to agree to a deal. "The Democratic base did not work night and day to elect Democrats so that they could cave to tea party extremists who are intent on gutting the social safety net millions of us fought to establish and protect," Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, said in a statement.

Both Republicans and Democrats face an electorate in a sour mood. A Washington Post/ABC poll released last week found that 80 percent of those surveyed were either angry or dissatisfied with the way things work in Washington – the highest figure since 1992. When the Post asked “are you inclined to vote to re-elect your representative in Congress, or are you inclined to look around for someone else,” some 63 percent said they would look around, an all- time high.

There is a strong feeling among Americans that both parties should do more to compromise, the new CNN poll found. When asked whether Obama was doing enough to cooperate with Republicans in Congress, 57 percent said no. And when asked whether Republicans in Congress were doing enough to cooperate with the president, 68 percent said no.

“Although most Americans say that Obama is not doing enough to cooperate with the GOP, even more say that the Republicans need to cooperate more with the president,” said CNN polling director Holland.

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