Time to raise debt ceiling: Does public back approach of Obama or Boehner?

Polls don't answer the question directly but indicate public support for Obama's 'balanced approach' to deficit reduction. But worry about 'government dysfunction' is also at its highest point since Watergate, and Americans are signaling to leaders that they want compromise.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
President Obama speaks about the debt limit in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Monday.

President Obama and Speaker John Boehner on Monday laid out sharply opposing visions of how to resolve the looming crisis over the national debt ceiling – and each claims public supports for his own line in the sand.

So, who has a better fix on the public mood?

On the policy dispute, polls indicate the public now favors Mr. Obama's call for a “balanced approach” to deficit reduction over the Boehner principle of matching spending cuts to every dollar increase in the debt limit.

But there's more. Ever since the fiscal-cliff debacle in 2011, public opinion has swung strongly in favor of compromise. Regardless of the policy outcomes they prefer, Americans are wary of hardline positions and want their leaders to negotiate and compromise.

Americans are now more worried about the federal budget deficit and “government dysfunction” than they are about unemployment, according to a Gallup poll released Monday.

Since 2009, the top two responses to Gallup’s (open-ended) question, “what do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?,” have been the economy and unemployment.  

While “the economy in general” still ranks No. 1 (21 percent), the federal budget deficit (20 percent) and dissatisfaction with government (18 percent) edged unemployment (16 percent) out of the top two slots.

“Debt and dissatisfaction with government are the new unemployment,” says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll in Princeton, N.J.

Dissatisfaction with government hasn’t ranked this high in Gallup polling since the Watergate era in 1974. As divided as Americans are on debt and deficit policy, they still expect their leaders to compromise.

The 2011 debt-limit standoff, resolved at the 11th hour after Democrats agreed to Boehner's demands to match every dollar of a higher debt limit with a dollar of spending cuts, rattled the US economy and drew the first-ever downgrade of the US credit rating. 

In the run-up to negotiations over the "fiscal cliff" at the end of 2012, two-thirds of Republicans and Democrats wanted both sides to compromise equally to avoid some $600 billion in tax hikes and automatic spending cuts then set to take hold Jan. 1, polls found.

But neither the president nor Mr. Boehner are talking compromise in advance of the latest debt-limit crisis, expected as early as mid-February.

In a press conference Monday, the president said he will not negotiate with Republicans over raising the debt limit, period, but that he would be willing to discuss in a separate context “a balanced approach” to deficit reduction.  

Boehner restated his own line in the sand. “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time,” he said in a statement after the White House press conference.

However, polls now back the president’s claim that most Americans want a “balanced approach” to cutting deficits – that is, one that includes tax hikes as well as spending cuts. Support for the Republican view – that deficits should be reduced only or mostly by spending cuts – has dropped 10 percentage points since 2011, according to a Gallup poll released after November elections. A balanced approach is now preferred by 45 percent of Americans, compared with 40 percent favoring only or mostly spending cuts, the poll reports.

Moreover, Obama has consistently received higher approval ratings than Republican leaders for his handling of debt and deficit negotiations. Most Americans blamed congressional Republicans (81 percent) more than the White House (67 percent) for the 2011 debt-limit debacle.

While Americans are lukewarm about the December 2012 tax-hike deal to avert the fiscal cliff, 48 percent approve of Obama’s handling of the negotiations, compared with 19 percent approval for GOP leaders, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Still, asked Monday who the public would blame if a fiscal impasse ends in a government shutdown, Obama said: "I suspect that the American people would blame all of Washington for not being able to get its act together.”

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