Voters Fear Debt Deal Will Hurt Medicare

Pressing: Obama strikes urgent tone.  
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
July 25, 2011, 6:33 p.m.

Amer­ic­ans ex­pressed more trust in Pres­id­ent Obama than in con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to make de­cisions about both the fed­er­al de­fi­cit and debt ceil­ing, but con­tin­ued to dis­play little ur­gency about the risk of de­fault if the two sides re­main stale­mated, a new United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll found.

Call it the great dis­con­nect. In Wash­ing­ton and on Wall Street, fears are rising that glob­al fin­an­cial mar­kets will tumble if the two parties can­not reach an agree­ment by Au­gust 2 to hike the fed­er­al debt ceil­ing. But in the sur­vey, Amer­ic­ans still ex­pressed much more anxi­ety about oth­er eco­nom­ic chal­lenges—and ap­peared less con­cerned that Con­gress would fail to raise the na­tion’s bor­row­ing lim­it than that it would in­clude un­ac­cept­able in­gredi­ents in any de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion pack­age ac­com­pa­ny­ing such an in­crease. Such at­ti­tudes may ex­plain why Obama struck such an ur­gent tone in Monday night’s ad­dress.

The United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll was con­duc­ted by Prin­ceton Sur­vey Re­search As­so­ci­ates In­ter­na­tion­al on Ju­ly 21-24, sur­vey­ing 999 adults. The poll has a mar­gin of er­ror for the full sample of plus or minus 3.8 per­cent­age points (the mar­gin is lar­ger for sample sub­groups). This poll was the first in a series of na­tion­al sur­veys that will track the pub­lic’s pri­or­it­ies for Con­gress—and its as­sess­ment of Wash­ing­ton’s per­form­ance—dur­ing most weeks that Con­gress is in ses­sion through 2012.

The best news for Obama in the sur­vey is that a sol­id plur­al­ity of Amer­ic­ans ex­pressed more trust in him than in con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to make de­cisions on the in­ter­twined is­sues of rais­ing the bor­row­ing lim­it and re­du­cing long-term debt. On the sub­ject of the de­fi­cit, 46 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they trust Obama most to “make the right de­cisions,” while 34 per­cent said they place more faith in con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans. Re­gard­ing the debt ceil­ing, a vir­tu­ally identic­al 46 per­cent leaned to­ward Obama and 35 per­cent chose the GOP.

The res­ult on each ques­tion showed little change in the polling con­duc­ted be­fore and after House Speak­er John Boehner ab­ruptly cut off talks with the White House on Fri­day over a “grand bar­gain” to re­duce the de­fi­cit.

At­ti­tudes gen­er­ally frac­tured along fa­mil­i­ar polit­ic­al fault lines. On each is­sue, not sur­pris­ingly, just over three-fourths of self-iden­ti­fied Re­pub­lic­ans pre­ferred the GOP and slightly more than four-fifths of Demo­crats picked Obama. In each case, in­de­pend­ents give Obama a single-di­git ad­vant­age.

Sim­il­arly, on each ques­tion, about three-fifths of minor­it­ies pre­ferred Obama, while only about one-fifth pre­ferred Re­pub­lic­ans. Whites di­vided ex­actly in half over which side they trust more on both ques­tions; that’s a re­l­at­ively strong show­ing for Obama, whose num­bers usu­ally trail the GOP’s among whites on most is­sues—of­ten by sub­stan­tial mar­gins. Al­though blue-col­lar whites nar­rowly pre­ferred the GOP on both is­sues, col­lege-edu­cated whites provided Obama with a nar­row ad­vant­age on the de­fi­cit is­sue and a sub­stan­tial edge, 49 per­cent to 37 per­cent, in trust on hand­ling the debt ceil­ing.

These find­ings sug­gest that the sus­tained con­front­a­tion over the debt ceil­ing is help­ing Obama re­gain some ground with swing voters, es­pe­cially the white-col­lar whites who provided him crit­ic­al sup­port in 2008 but moved sharply to­ward the GOP in last year’s midterm elec­tion. Yet, it’s not clear how much Obama’s ad­vant­age over Re­pub­lic­ans in this sur­vey—which echoes the res­ults of oth­er re­cent polls—will be­ne­fit him in the im­me­di­ate con­front­a­tion. That’s be­cause des­pite ex­press­ing more trust in Obama, much of the pub­lic still res­ists his as­sess­ment of the stakes of the stan­doff.

On the broad­est ques­tion, Amer­ic­ans re­main di­vided al­most ex­actly in half on wheth­er they would prefer in­creas­ing the debt ceil­ing at all. In the sur­vey, 45 per­cent of those polled said their great­er con­cern was that “rais­ing the debt lim­it would lead to high­er gov­ern­ment spend­ing and make the na­tion­al debt big­ger.” Mean­while, 43 per­cent said they were more con­cerned that “not rais­ing the debt lim­it would force the gov­ern­ment in­to de­fault and hurt the na­tion’s eco­nomy.”

That res­ult re­flects more con­cern about de­fault than when PSRA asked the ques­tion in May. But des­pite a cas­cade of re­cent warn­ings from pub­lic and private-sec­tor of­fi­cials, the latest res­ult shows vir­tu­ally no more alarm than earli­er in Ju­ly, when 47 per­cent of re­spond­ents said they wor­ried more about a deal that could hike spend­ing and 42 per­cent ex­pressed more con­cern about de­fault.

Two oth­er ques­tions re­in­forced that res­ult. The pos­sib­il­ity of de­fault placed only a dis­tant fourth when Amer­ic­ans were asked to rank the coun­try’s most press­ing eco­nom­ic prob­lem: 34 per­cent of those polled picked un­em­ploy­ment; 25 per­cent iden­ti­fied the rising cost of ne­ces­sit­ies like gas­ol­ine and food; 15 per­cent tabbed the size of the fed­er­al de­fi­cit; and just 10 per­cent cited the risk that the gov­ern­ment would de­fault on its debts. Only slow growth in wages (at 8 per­cent) ranked lower.

Even more strik­ing were the res­ults to an­oth­er ques­tion ask­ing re­spond­ents to identi­fy the pos­sible out­comes of the debt-ceil­ing de­bate that most con­cerned them. Just 17 per­cent said that their biggest con­cern was “a de­fault on the fed­er­al debt that could raise in­terest rates for things like mort­gages and con­sumer loans.”

The most pre­val­ent con­cern, by far, was a worry from the left: 39 per­cent said they wor­ried most that Wash­ing­ton would reach “an agree­ment that cuts too much from gov­ern­ment pro­grams like Medi­care and So­cial Se­cur­ity.” Nearly an equal num­ber picked a pair of con­cerns, in ef­fect, from the right: 19 per­cent said they wor­ried most about “an agree­ment that au­thor­izes too much fed­er­al spend­ing” and 17 per­cent said they most feared “an agree­ment that raises taxes on people like you.”

Edu­ca­tion levels marked a clear di­vide in ap­pre­hen­sion about rais­ing the debt ceil­ing. Across all the ques­tions, col­lege gradu­ates were much more likely than those without de­grees to fear de­fault.

Col­lege gradu­ates, in­clud­ing whites, were also much more likely to say that the GOP would bear the blame if de­fault oc­curs rather than Obama. Over­all, 31 per­cent of those sur­veyed said they would blame con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans most for a break­down, com­pared to 23 per­cent who would blame the pres­id­ent and 13 per­cent who would fault con­gres­sion­al Demo­crats. But among col­lege gradu­ates, fully 42 per­cent said they would most blame Re­pub­lic­ans—al­most double the 22 per­cent who would fault Obama if Wash­ing­ton teeters in­to an his­tor­ic de­fault next week.