Is Obama winning over Americans in debt-ceiling standoff?

Recent polls show that Americans are coming to agree with Obama's position: that Congress must raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit by a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts.

Larry Downing / Reuters
President Obama holds one of several press conferences to discuss the progress of negotiations on raising the debt ceiling and finding a balanced approach to deficit reduction, in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, July 15.

The most extensive use of the bully pulpit since taking office appears to be paying off for President Obama.

Since June 29, Mr. Obama has had three press conferences, a Twitter town hall, multiple regional TV interviews, and numerous public remarks. On Friday, the day by which Obama hopes to reach agreement with Republicans on major deficit reduction, he will hold a regular town hall in College Park, Md.

Obama has used these opportunities to drive home his view that Congress must raise the ceiling on the federal debt, that a grand bargain on deficit reduction must include tax increases, and that hard-liners in both parties must compromise. It’s impossible to prove that Obama’s public relations blitz is directly responsible for shifting public opinion, but two major new polls show that Americans are indeed moving toward the president’s position, if not fully buying it.

In the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Tuesday night, a growing percentage of Americans – now 38 percent – say that the debt ceiling should be raised, versus 31 percent who say it should not. A month ago, only 28 percent favored raising the debt ceiling and 39 percent said it shouldn’t. Obama, his administration, and most economists assert that a failure to raise the debt ceiling by Aug. 2 would lead the nation to begin defaulting on its debt – or, alternatively, halt payments on other national obligations, such as Social Security checks and service members’ paychecks. Any of these nonpayments would be devastating to the US economy and the individuals affected.

Conservatives, including many tea party activists, say that raising the debt ceiling only enables the government to continue spending at irresponsibly high rates.

The WSJ/NBC poll also found that Obama’s proposal – $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years that combines spending cuts, including on Medicare, and tax hikes on corporations and the wealthy – beats the House Republican plan by 22 points (58 percent to 36 percent). The House GOP plan, called "Cut, Cap, and Balance," would cut and cap federal spending and require congressional approval of a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution before the debt ceiling could be raised. Anything that could be construed as a tax increase – including the closing of tax loopholes and ending of corporate subsidies – is anathema to many congressional Republicans.

Another new poll also found signs that Obama is beating the Republicans in the debt/deficit showdown – though Obama comes in for scorn as well. According to Tuesday's Washington Post/ABC News poll, Republicans are increasingly dissatisfied with their representatives in Congress. Some 58 percent say they’re not doing enough to reach a deal, compared with 42 percent in March. And a majority of Republicans say they’re willing to see higher taxes on the wealthy.

Both polls showed strong public support for compromise in addressing the debt and deficit, but the Washington Post/ABC News found nearly 60 percent of Americans say Obama has not been open enough to compromise. Still, among the crucial voting bloc of independents, Obama beats the Republicans on the compromise issue: 79 percent say Republicans aren’t doing enough, while 62 percent say the same regarding Obama.

One expert on the bully pulpit, presidential scholar George Edwards of Texas A&M University, argues that the notion that a presidential public-relations blitz can have much impact on public opinion is overrated.

“More likely what has happened is that the public is moved by the world, by events, and they see increasingly that it’s important to make a deal,” Professor Edwards says. “A lot of people have said that, not just the president.”

“Number two, they’ve seen who’s the most intransigent – the House Republicans,” he adds. “The president has shown some flexibility, and House Republicans have shown no flexibility. Some people get it.”

Still, if you’re the White House communications shop, and you see polls numbers moving your way, chances are you keep doing what you’re doing. So we may well be seeing more of Obama in his bully pulpit than usual, at least until the debt/deficit crisis abates.

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