Public divided on raising debt limit, but sees serious fallout for economy

September 18, 2013

Big majorities of both Republicans and Democrats agree that failure to raise the federal debt ceiling would seriously hurt the economy. But the public is nonetheless divided along partisan lines over whether Congress should increase the borrowing limit, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.


Mark Lennihan / AP

The government's authority to borrow more money will run out sometime in October. Before that deadline, Congress must deal with legislation to fund the government. At this point, President Obama and congressional Republicans are far from agreement on how to avoid a potentially chaotic outcome.

Obama has taken a firm line, saying that he will not negotiate over the debt ceiling while remaining open to talks about budget and spending issues. But Republicans want dollar-for-dollar spending cuts to offset the increase in the borrowing limit and many in the party advocate ending or delaying implementation of the president's signature Affordable Care Act as well.

Obama issued a stern warning to Republicans on Monday about talk of shutting down much of the government rather than funding the health-care act and of blocking an increase in the government's borrowing authority.

That, he said, would cause "massive economic turmoil." Failure to raise the borrowing limit would subject the government to defaulting on its obligations and could harm the country's credit rating.

For now, the two sides appear dug in. House GOP leaders Wednesday announced plans for a Friday vote on a government funding bill that will include a rider to block funding for the health-care law.

The Post-ABC poll found that neither Obama nor congressional Republicans are seen by the public as sufficiently willing to make compromises with the other. But Americans see Republicans as significantly more inflexible than the president.

Forty-nine percent of those surveyed say Obama is doing too little to compromise with Republicans, but 64 percent say the Republicans are doing too little. Only about a fifth say Republicans are doing about the right amount to find common ground with the president, compared with just over a third who say Obama is doing about enough.

Two years ago, Obama and the Republicans spent months trying to reach a budget agreement as part of larger negotiations over raising the debt ceiling. Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried and failed to negotiate a so-called grand bargain on
the budget and some entitlements programs and have spent the past two years blaming each other for the breakdown.

The collapse of those talks and the subsequent messy compromise that allowed the government's borrowing power to rise turned out to be a political debacle that affected the standing of both the Republicans and the president.

It also resulted in the downgrading of the government's credit rating by Standard & Poor's, which cited political dysfunction as a principal reason for its decision. Consumer confidence plunged in the aftermath of that episode and sent both Obama's and Republicans' job ratings plunging to record lows.

Economists later concluded that the uncertainty created by the political standoff slowed the recovery of an economy that was still far from good health after the 2008 recession.

Now, as the two sides point to the October deadline on the debt ceiling and another possible showdown over the budget, those memories are fresh in everyone's minds-and almost every aspect of public opinion about the debate is colored by partisanship.

Overall, the public is split almost evenly over whether the debt ceiling should be raised, 46 percent saying yes and 43 percent saying no. But the two parties are mirror images of one another, with 62 percent of Democrats saying it should be raised and 61 percent of Republican saying it should not. Independents are divided--48 percent supporting and 46 percent opposing.

Those partisan divisions exist despite a consensus across party lines that failure to raise the limit would cause severe harm to the economy. On that question, 78 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents and 66 percent of Republicans agree that not raising the limit poses a serious threat to the economy.

Those who advocate raising the limit are far more likely to say failing to do so would hurt the economy. But even among those say they oppose a hike in the limit, almost six in 10 percent say the economy would be damaged if the government defaulted on its bills.

Similarly, there is an almost even split in the country over which party enjoys more trust to handle budget issues, with 43 percent saying the president and 40 percent citing congressional Republicans.

But distrust of the opposite party is a prime factor in shaping overall opinion. Roughly eight in 10 Republicans trust their leadership while about seven in 10 Democrats trust the president. Independents split their trust 37 for percent Obama, 41 percent for congressional Republicans.

The same partisan lines exist on the question of who is less willing to strike a deal. Over eight in 10 Republicans say Obama is doing too little to compromise while more than seven in 10 Democrats say the Republicans are too inflexible.

However, rank-and-file Republicans are harder on their own leaders than are Democrats. Only 38 percent said the GOP leaders are doing "about the right amount" to compromise with Obama, while 58 percent of Democrats say they're satisfied with the president's stance.

One of the outcomes of the debt ceiling debacle of two years ago was the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. Known as sequestration, the cuts took effect earlier this year after Congress and the president failed to reach agreement on a broader
budget package.

At the time they went into effect, just 35 percent of Americans said they approved. In the new Post-ABC poll, approval has risen to 43 percent, with 50 percent saying they are opposed. A majority of Republicans support the automatic cuts while a majority of Democrats oppose them. Independents, again, are evenly divided.

The Post-ABC poll was conducted by telephone Thursday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,004 adults, including interviews on landlines and with cellphone-only respondents. The overall results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

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