Why ‘wait and see’ is a sequestration mantra we should get used to

March 5, 2013

The public is divided over the projected impact of the deep federal spending cuts that began kicking in on Friday, two surveys taken since that time show. Among those with an opinion, the cuts are viewed more negatively. But a substantial part of the public remains on the fence about their projected impact.

Understanding the public's opinion about sequestration will be a waiting game. (Daniel C. Britt/The Washington Post)
Understanding the public's opinion about sequestration will be a waiting game. (Daniel C. Britt -- The Washington Post)

According to a Gallup poll conducted on Saturday and Sunday, most Americans don't know enough to say whether the cuts, split between defense and domestic spending, will be good or bad for either the country or them, personally. Among those who had an opinion, more believed sequestration would take a negative toll.

A CBS News poll conducted Friday through Sunday showed a plurality of Americans (46 percent) who said they believe the cuts are bad for the country. But 34 percent said they were a good thing, while another 20 percent either said they would have no impact, or expressed no opinion.

In the coming months, if the sequester is not averted -- and there are no signs that it will be, in the near-term, at least -- we'll see whether the public moves heavily toward the "it's bad" or "it's good" side of the debate. (Therein lies the "wait and see.") If Americans do, then it will say a lot about the political imperative (or lack thereof) for lawmakers to replace the cuts.

According to both surveys, Democrats generally view sequestration more negatively than positively, while Republicans take the opposite view. And notably, in the CBS News poll, congressional Republicans (33 percent) and President Obama (38 percent) are blamed nearly equally for the failure to avert the sequester.

One possible explanation for the disparity between the relatively high percentage of respondents in the Gallup survey who said they don't know enough to judge whether the sequester is good or bad and the lower percentage in the CBS News poll who expressed a similar view is this: Gallup offered "or don't know enough to say" as an option in the poll, something that tends to produce more noncommittal responses. CBS News offered "no impact" as an alternative to good/bad.

The surveys reinforce something polling showed before the sequester kicked in: There is much uncertainty among Americans about the impact of the spending cuts. And where this is more certainty, there is disagreement.

A Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll conducted late last month showed that Americans were split between those who said they had a good understanding of the sequester's impact and those who did not. In the early days after the sequester kicked in, the public's sentiment appears comparable.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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