The Public and the Debt Ceiling

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Responding to an unconfirmed Wall Street Journal article suggesting that President Obama might be willing to negotiate with Republicans over increasing the debt ceiling limit, Jon Chait says:

There’s a massive weakness in [the GOP] position that Democrats have not tried to exploit. Republicans are winning leverage by communicating their willingness to do something really unpopular, but they are communicating this inside Washington without having to communicate it outside Washington. If Obama insists he will only sign a clean debt limit bill, and will negotiate budget changes as part of the budget, what do Republicans do? They become solely responsible for the consequences of refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Let them go explain that to their business backers. 

Really unpopular? Here’s a poll in January showing that 71% of Americans oppose increasing the debt ceiling. Here’s a poll in February putting the number at 62%. Here’s another one from March putting it at 60%. And here’s one from April that put it at 62% after it was explained that raising the debt ceiling meant the United States might default on its debt.

Now, I don’t think these numbers will stay this high once the debt ceiling fight takes center stage and everyone gets a better idea of what it really means to refuse to raise it. Still, like it or not, liberals have long since lost the public opinion battle over the deficit. Poll after poll makes it clear that most people want to cut federal spending and don’t want to raise the debt ceiling. Sure, it’s a vague sentiment, and it falls apart when you ask them what they want to cut, but the fact remains that the public is largely on the Republican side of this battle right now. I happen to agree with Chait and others that Obama would be better off sticking to his guns and demanding a clean bill, but it’s also worth acknowledging that this strategy starts from the bottom of a pretty deep hole. As usual, the liberal community has done a crappy job of selling the public on our perspective. Now we’re paying the price.

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