September 26, 2013

A new Bloomberg poll finds that Americans think spending cuts should be attached to a debt ceiling hike by 61-28. This is being widely portrayed as proof the public sides with Republicans on the debt limit. That’s nonsense: The poll doesn’t test the actual GOP position, which is to demand an Obamacare delay and a host of other conservative goodies in exchange for a hike. But still, recent chatter has it that perhaps Republicans can deflect blame for economic havoc from default on to Obama.

That’s delusional, says Joel Benenson, Obama’s lead pollster. Benenson made an argument similar to the one he made about the 2012 campaign — which turned out to be right. He noted the key is how both sides are perceived in terms of who is really standing up for the middle class, and suggested that would shape how the public apportions blame for default and economic turmoil.

“They’re deluding themselves,” Benenson told me, referring to Republicans. “They were held accountable when they did this [during the debt limit battle] in 2011. They were held accountable for putting the recovery at risk throughout the 2012 election. And hard working Americans who are getting up every day doing their jobs are taking a very dim view of what they’re seeing from the Republican Congress right now.”

In 2012, Republicans were convinced the bad economy — and Obama’s low economic approval ratings — meant the guy in charge would get the blame and get thrown out. It didn’t happen. Benenson wrote a piece after the election explaining the GOP miscalculation: Obama won because swing voters concluded he was the one on their side and that his values and concerns were more in touch with their own.

Benenson said the current battle over the debt limit will be viewed through a similar prism — one defined by how each side is perceived. Today’s New York Times/CBS poll finds that only 21 percent approve of Congressional Republicans, and that only 12 percent think GOP policies favor the middle class, versus 65 percent who think they favor the rich. Meanwhile, far more think Obama is trying to work with Republicans than the other way around.

In the debt limit battle, Benenson said, “Republicans won’t be perceived as fighting for average Americans who are working their tails off and want the country to move forward. They are seen as tied in with special interests and placating the extreme wing of their party instead of doing what’s right for working Americans.”

Asked to comment on the Bloomberg poll showing 61 percent want spending cuts tied to the debt limit, Benenson said: “People on average do not know that the debt limit refers to obligations and bills approved by Congress over time.”

Benenson maintained broader perceptions of the two sides would matter far more. He noted that the low standing of the GOP helped sink the party in 2012, and that its approval ratings have sunk even further since then.

“The American people continue to see Republicans as being captive to the extreme wing of their party and repeatedly putting our economic recovery at risk through obstructionist political acts,” he said.

Indeed, Republicans are expected to ask for a host of demands, such as more spending cuts and the rolling back of Wall Street regulations, that could showcase the party’s conservative economic priorities and make this battle dovetail with broader perceptions of both sides. “Republicans continue to be a party that is out of touch with the economic values of hard working Americans,” Benenson said.

Folks scoffed at the idea that perceptions of both sides’ economic values — and of who was really on the side of the middle class — could help determine the outcome in 2012. But that turned out to be exactly right.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.