The Debt Ceiling and Blame for Obama and the GOP

by John Sides on July 14, 2011 · 12 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political Economy,Public opinion

Let’s keep working under the assumption that the debt ceiling isn’t raised and this has negative consequences for the economy.  In my earlier post, I suggested that this would hurt Obama because the presidents gets the credit or blame for economic conditions.  In response, Jon Bernstein, Jonathan Chait, and Ezra Klein all responded by saying, in part, “Sure, but maybe time is different.”  Chait and Klein note that Mitch McConnell seems to feel likewise:

[W]e knew shutting down the government in 1995 was not going to work for us. It helped Bill Clinton get reelected. I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy. It didn’t work in 1995. What will happen is the administration will send out notices to 80 million Social Security recipients and to military families and they will all start attacking members of Congress. That is not a useful place to take us. And the president will have the bully pulpit to blame Republicans for all this disruption.

Steve Kornacki cites a new Quinnipiac poll that finds that, by a 48-34 margin, Americans will blame the GOP rather than Obama if the debt ceiling is not raised.  Kornacki interprets this as buttressing McConnell’s fear.

I’m not convinced.  For one, I’d be impressed that more Americans say they’ll blame the GOP and not Obama if most Americans actually wanted to increase the debt ceiling in the first place. See Mark Blumenthal’s thorough rundown of the polls.

Second, during the 1995 shutdown, Clinton’s popularity went down during this time—although this fact seemingly cannot penetrate the conventional wisdom.  See my earlier post.  Yes, the polls also weren’t kind to Gingrich and the GOP, but it is hard to claim that Clinton benefited in the eyes of voters.  There is certainly no evidence that I know of that the shutdown helped re-elect Bill Clinton.  It’s interesting that McConnell thinks that, if only because it appears to guide his actions now.  But I don’t think it’s true.

Finally, even though this fight over the debt ceiling is unusual, I have a hard time imagining that Obama is going to emerge unscathed if the ceiling isn’t lifted and the economy suffers.  After all, incumbent politicians are punished by voters for a thousand trivial things, even losses in college football games.  I am hardpressed to imagine that voters will suddenly exonerate Obama from possible economic disruptions and simply blame the GOP.  To be clear, I don’t think either party would come out of a debt ceiling meltdown smelling like roses.  But let’s not pretend that Obama will somehow avoid that.

Or put it this way: what if the meltdown led to, say, 1-2 months of bond rating markdowns, stock market convulsions, disruptions of key government services, and wall-to-wall media coverage of the same?  What happens to Obama’s approval rating in that time?  My bet is that, just as with Clinton in 1995, it goes down.

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