WASHINGTON — Americans by a 2-to-1 ratio disagree with President Barack Obama’s contention that Congress should raise the debt limit without conditions.
Instead, 61 percent say that it’s “right to require spending cuts when the debt ceiling is raised even if it risks default,” because Congress lacks spending discipline, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 20-23.
That sentiment is shared by almost three-quarters of Republicans, two-thirds of independents, and a plurality of Democrats. Just 28 percent of respondents backed Obama’s call for a clean bill that has no add-on provisions.
“Sometimes it can be hard to negotiate if Republicans are making irrational demands, but to say ‘I’m not going to talk at all’ — I’ve just never found not negotiating to be an effective way to get something done,” Sam Manders, a 29-year-old lacrosse coach from Gray, Maine, and a Democrat, said in a follow-up interview.
“Sitting down and actually figuring out what you can afford to lose and what you can’t is always going to be better than automatic cuts, but if they can’t do their jobs themselves, then we have to have another way of getting it done,” Manders added.
Obama and congressional Republicans are deadlocked over the federal budget in a confrontation that could prompt a government shutdown within days. Republicans are insisting that continued spending past the current budget’s Monday end date be contingent on defunding the president’s health care law. Obama has rejected that proposal.
That showdown could influence the next set of negotiations over raising the $16.7 trillion U.S. borrowing limit, which the Treasury Department said will be reached by Oct. 17. The debt ceiling must be boosted to avoid a first-ever national default. The president has said he won’t negotiate over raising the debt limit, and is insisting on a clean vote.
“The responsibility of Congress to pay the bills of the United States, bills that Congress has incurred, is not a subject of negotiation,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Wednesday.
With the nation on the brink of a possible government shutdown and or debt default, the poll results show a public distrustful of both political parties and conflicted over what should happen next.
Fifty-six percent of Americans see across-the-board federal spending cuts imposed by Congress this year as doing more harm to the economy than help, a broad rejection of the so-called “sequester” that crosses political parties. Twenty-six percent of respondents say the indiscriminate cuts are helping.
Almost two-thirds of the public would rather see the automatic reductions replaced with targeted cuts. That strong sentiment comes even as most people aren’t personally affected by the across-the-board cuts; 30 percent of Americans say their households have felt the spending reductions. while 66 percent say they haven’t.
“By 2 to 1, they seem to think that the sequester is hurting rather than helping the economy and they think there’s a better way to go than that, but in the face of a deficit they believe is getting bigger, they’re looking for something that will help control spending,” said J. Ann Selzer, the president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll of 1,000 adults. It has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.1 percentage points.
“People are unhappy, and they don’t see that there’s an obvious solution to this,” Selzer added.
Fifty-nine percent of respondents say the federal budget deficit is growing, while only 10 percent say it’s shrinking and about a quarter say it’s staying the same. In the second quarter ending June 30, the deficit shrank to 4.3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the Treasury Department.
Long-term debt continues to pile up, amounting to 73 percent of annual economic output this year and projected to reach 100 percent of GDP by 2038, according to a Sept. 17 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
Obama has lost ground in the debate. Forty percent of respondents blame congressional Republicans for what’s gone wrong in Washington, compared with the 38 percent who blame the president and congressional Democrats, a statistically insignificant gap. Twenty-two percent say they aren’t sure who to blame.
That’s a shift from February, when Obama fared nine percentage points better than Republicans when asked in the Bloomberg poll who deserved blame for Washington’s dysfunction. Back then, independents split about evenly over which party was at fault, with 36 percent naming Republicans and 35 percent calling out Obama. In the latest survey, they turned against the Democrats. Forty-two percent of independents blamed Obama and his congressional allies, compared with 34 percent who said congressional Republicans were responsible.
“He’s continued what Bush did: say, ‘We’re just going to keep spending, keep spending, and things will turn around,’” said Maureen Griffin, a 47-year-old homemaker from Enfield, Conn., tying Obama to former Republican President George W. Bush. “They’re just not making choices. Both political parties are guilty of that, but Obama’s the president and, eventually, we are going to default if we don’t make cuts.”
Dennis Becker, a 78-year-old independent who has backed Obama, said he’s “increasingly disappointed” with the president’s posture on fiscal issues even though he says congressional Republicans have been “hijacked by an extreme right-wing group” that doesn’t represent voters.
“He’s weak and I don’t think he’s provided sufficiently strong leadership on this,” Becker, a retiree living in St. James, N.C., said of Obama in a follow-up interview.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to avoid a shutdown,” Becker said. “Maybe that’s what it will take to get some compromise.”
At the same time, the poll indicates the public’s appetite is waning for revisions of the major drivers of the nation’s debt, including the federal retirement and health programs for the elderly and disabled.
Fifty percent say Medicare should be changed to substantially reduce the deficit, compared with 41 percent who say it isn’t necessary — a drop from February, when respondents by an almost 2-to-1 ratio said a Medicare rewrite is necessary. On Social Security, respondents are split over the necessity of remaking the program, compared with seven months ago, when they backed changes by 51 percent to 39 percent.
While majorities support creating a sliding scale for both Medicare and Social Security so poorer people get more benefits and the wealthier get fewer, the proportion favoring such a change is declining. Fifty-three percent of Americans back an income sliding scale for Social Security compared with 59 percent in February. On Medicare, support for such a change has fallen four percentage points to 59 percent.
That may reflect the degree to which the debate over funding Obamacare has overshadowed the discussion over what steps should be taken to reduce the debt.
“It’s become back-burner and Obamacare is front-burner, along with the government shutdown,” Selzer said.