Just about anyone who follows baseball has seen a game where all the close calls seem to go one way, benefiting one team at the expense of the other. So it is with the public’s view of the fiscal-cliff debacle that marked the end of the 112th Congress. Neither party should take much comfort from the outcome, when negotiators narrowly averted a fall off the cliff. From the people’s vantage point, neither side looked very good—and congressional Republicans looked particularly bad.
Assessment of the deal itself was a relatively close call, with 45 percent of Americans surveyed by ABC News and The Washington Post approving the agreement and 38 percent disapproving in the poll of 1,000 adults conducted Jan. 2-6. Seventeen percent had no opinion or refused to respond. The poll found that 52 percent backed “the way Barack Obama handled budget negotiations,” and 37 percent disapproved—a positive difference of 15 percentage points. Just 31 percent approved of “the way House Speaker John Boehner handled budget negotiations,” while 51 percent disapproved—a net negative of 14 points. True, 52 percent support is not a rousing endorsement of the president’s handling of the situation, but the disparity between the assessment of the president and the speaker is notable.
The Pew Research Center’s Jan. 3-6 poll of 1,003 adults asked, “As you know, Congress and the president have passed new legislation on taxes. From what you’ve read and heard, do you strongly approve, approve, disapprove, or strongly disapprove of this tax legislation?” Thirty-eight percent of respondents either strongly or not-so-strongly approved; 41 percent either strongly or not-so-strongly disapproved; and 21 percent had no opinion or refused to answer. The Pew Center then asked respondents whether they approved or disapproved of how Obama and Republican leaders in Congress “handled negotiations over the tax legislation.” Forty-eight percent approved of Obama’s handling and 40 percent disapproved, a net 8-point positive. Just 19 percent approved of the way Republican leaders in Congress handled it, and 66 percent disapproved, a net 47-point negative.
The Gallup Organization asked straightforward approve or disapprove questions for each of the major participants. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden each came in at minus 2 percentage points (46 percent approved of Obama’s performance and 48 percent disapproved; 40 percent approved of Biden’s job and 42 percent disapproved). Then things got ugly. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell got a minus 18 points (28 percent approved; 46 percent disapproved), followed by Boehner with minus 19 points (31 percent approved; 50 percent disapproved) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid with minus 21 points (27 percent approved; 48 percent disapproved). Gallup then asked more generically about “Democratic leaders in Congress” and “Republican leaders in Congress.” Democratic leaders managed a minus 21 points (34 percent approved; 55 percent disapproved) while Republican leaders came in twice as bad, at minus 42 points (25 percent approved; 67 percent disapproved).
Putting aside any subjective assessment of how any of these people actually performed in the fiscal-cliff drama, the polling data suggest that the public is likely to be pretty critical of anyone associated with Congress on either side, but that people view Republicans more harshly than Democrats. To put it differently: Any association with Congress is bad, as is any association with the Republican Party. So to be a congressional Republican is to get slammed on both counts.
Whether that assessment is fair and justified is almost beside the point. Congressional Republicans need to recognize that either they’re committing more errors than Obama and the Democrats or that their style of play is such that they are losing the calls. They need to realize that the public doesn’t like the way they’re playing the game. The spectators are booing them more than they are the other team.
Between now and the end of March, Washington will face the equivalent of the fiscal-cliff challenge multiplied by three: automatic spending cuts known as sequestration if serious budget cuts aren’t enacted; default if Congress doesn’t raise the debt limit; and an expiration of funding for day-to-day operations of the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year if Congress doesn’t approve another continuing resolution. Nothing in the past month suggests that resolving this triple threat will be easy.
But Republicans should take fair warning that the public is disinclined to cut them any breaks and that they are carrying an even greater persuasion burden than the other side. They can argue that it isn’t fair, that the people are being duped by Democratic propaganda, and that Democrats are blowing smoke when they say Republicans deserve all the criticism. But it is what it is. Republicans did not fight the fiscal-cliff fight on a level playing field, and they have no reason to believe that tilt will change over the next three months. Consequently, they have to proceed with great caution.
This article appears in the January 12, 2013, edition of National Journal Magazine as Bad News Bearers.