Americans broadly do not understand how the debt ceiling works, according to the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll.
More than twice as many Americans believe lifting the limit means authorizing more borrowing "for future expenditures" than believe it means "paying off the debts [the federal government] has already accumulated" — 62 percent to 28 percent, respectively.
The reality is that lifting the debt limit allows the Treasury Department to borrow money to pay for bills that Congress has already rung up.
With less than 10 days until the nation hits its borrowing limit, the poll found that the misunderstanding was rampant. It was shared by the young and the elderly, the rich and the poor, the college educated and those with only high schools educations.
Nearly three in four Republicans, 73 percent, said the debt limit was for "future expenditures," but a majority of Democrats, 53 percent, also agreed. Independents, at 62 percent, fell in between the two major parties.
The confusion is one reason President Obama has continued to play professor and try to explain the law to Americans. "This is not raising our debt," Obama said Tuesday at a press conference. "It does not add a dime to our debt."
While Americans share in their misunderstanding of the debt limit, they are sharply divided along party lines over how big a deal it would be if Congress did not boost the borrowing cap, the poll shows.
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has said the country will run out of borrowing capacity on Oct. 17. But a majority of Republicans, 54 percent, basically shrug at the deadline, saying it can pass without major economic consequences. Meanwhile, most Democrats, 62 percent, and a narrower plurality of independents, 45 percent to 38 percent, say it is "absolutely essential" to lift the debt limit.
The division is reflected in the deadlocked Congress, where Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declared on the Senate floor Tuesday that "these 'debt-ceiling deniers' need a dose of debt-ceiling reality."
The problem for Schumer is he's not talking about a small portion of the country: 39 percent of Americans said in the survey that the United States can bust its borrowing limit "without major economic problems." Only a narrow plurality, 47 percent, sided with Schumer that it is "absolutely essential" to avoid an economic crisis; 15 percent said they didn't know what to make of the debt limit.
Most economists say that failing to allow the federal government to borrow more money, which would eventually lead to defaulting on bills, would seriously harm the economy. In the summer of 2011, when Congress last flirted with allowing the nation to breach the debt limit, the stock market took a dive and the economy slowed. The nation also lost its AAA credit rating from Standard & Poors for the first time.
The challenge for the White House is that most Republicans simply don't trust the administration's sky-is-falling warnings. Many GOP lawmakers point out that the administration warned for months about the devastating impact of the automatic cutbacks in sequestration earlier this year, but that those budget cuts were implemented with few immediate and dramatic consequences.
Still, President Obama is more trusted than congressional Republicans when it comes to handling issues of debt and deficits.
A narrow plurality of Americans, 45 percent, said they trusted him more than Republicans in Congress, who were preferred by 37 percent in the poll. Obama maintained a narrowed 3-percentage point advantage among critical independent voters.
Those who trust Obama more look very much like the coalition that elected him: urban-dwellers (by a 23-point margin), women (who give him a 14-point edge, compared with men who were almost evenly divided), minorities (65 percent trust Obama more), and the young (53 percent).
Among white Americans, it is the inverse: 44 percent trust congressional Republicans more, compared with 36 percent for Obama. Obama is still more trusted by a majority of one key group of whites: 53 percent of college-educated white women picked him over the congressional GOP. Among those who trust Obama the least are white men, who aren't college educated, only 31 percent of whom picked Obama over Republicans.
Those same white men without college degrees were among the most skeptical that breaching the debt limit would result in serious economic harm. Only 35 percent believed that.
Overall, concerns about the economic severity of not raising the debt limit grew with the survey respondents' level of education. A majority of college graduates (52 percent to 32 percent) said it was "essential" to lift it, compared with a plurality of those with some college (47 percent to 41 percent) and a very narrow plurality within the margin of error (43 percent to 41 percent) among those with a high school education or less.
The current installment of the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll was conducted, in English, between Oct. 3 and Oct. 6 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. The poll surveyed 1,000 adults, half via cell phone, and carries a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points. Subgroups have greater margins of error.