The Debt Ceiling and Blame for Obama and the GOP

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.

12 Responses to The Debt Ceiling and Blame for Obama and the GOP

  1. Steve Smith July 14, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    Gingrich clearly and overwhelmingly was the big loser in the 1995-1996 showdown. Boehner and Cantor could receive the same fate. By 1997, even a majority of Republicans told Gallup that Gingrich should be replaced. Perhaps Clinton did not receive as much credit as some claim (his approval rating did turn around), but Gallup reported a “wholesale turnaround in his image” by the end of 1996. Gingrich and congressional Republicans received a heap of blame. This surely played a role in their weak showing in the 1998 elections and Gingrich’s final demise.

    • John Sides July 14, 2011 at 7:23 pm #

      Steve: I certainly agree that, a year later, Clinton was in better shape than Gingrich. But it’s tough to say how much of Clinton’s recovery was due to the shutdown battle and how much was due to the economic growth that preceded the 1996 election. And by the 1998 election, it’s tough to parse the effects of the shutdown versus, say, impeachment. To me, the evidence re: the shutdown doesn’t clearly suggest that Obama can risk a debt ceiling meltdown.

    • stevo67 July 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

      IIRC, the reason that Gingritch and the Repubs fell so dramatically in the polls during the government shutdown of 95-96 was that they cheered the shutdown like drunken frat boys at a wet t-shirt contest. No displays of compassion, remorse or rectitude for the folks taking the hit (government employees furloughed, SS pensioners not getting checks). To say it was the political equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns would be an understatement. That’s why the polling turned in favor of Clinton- he at least pretended to appear contrite.

  2. Phill July 14, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

    Maybe what he means is that the moneyed interests who support GOP candidates would withdraw their support for those candidates perceived responsible for whatever losses they incur as a function of a debt ceiling meltdown.

  3. MyName July 14, 2011 at 5:45 pm #

    You have a point about the shutdown negatively affecting Clinton’s numbers, but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t help him get elected for the simple reason that his opponent in the election was a Congressman so he could also share the blame for the shutdown, unlike someone running as an outsider.

    A more telling thought to my mind is that a default may be good for the GOP’s numbers overall, but may be bad for whoever has the leadership in Congress. Just as the shutdown may have been good for GOP rank and file, but bad for Newt.

  4. anonymous coward July 14, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    John, I think you’re answering a different question than other people are asking. Even if a default hurts Obama in some absolute sense, he’s also the “winner” so long as the Republicans are hurt more badly and the net flux of votes shifts towards him and other Democrats.

    Just like the French “won” at Verdun.

    • John Sides July 14, 2011 at 7:25 pm #

      Point taken. I’m just dubious that there are ultimately net benefits to Obama from any sort of economic downturn.

  5. John N July 14, 2011 at 8:22 pm #

    John, who wins in this daily activity of the Repubs trying to get out of the corner they have put themselves?

    Seems like Obama wins everyday this goes on and we get McConnell’s comments yesterday, Cantor’s childish behavior, Graham and Corker admitting this was the wrong place to fight and now Boehner bear hugging Cantor to bale him out and effectively neuter his “et tu Eric” cabal.

    The more the Repubs get out there telling everyone that August 2nd is not going to matter to the markets while the real experts and rating agencies keep telling the truth.

    Having Bachmann, Gohmert and all those folks espousing this certainly is of no help t the long term Republican position or 2012 hopes.

    My guess still is that we will get a last minute clean bill further making this faux crisis the Repubs created even more obvious.

    • John Sides July 14, 2011 at 8:32 pm #

      John N: I can’t tell who is winning the day-to-day because I think the answer is mostly speculation. (Although even speculation can be important if politicians come to believe it.) Given more time, we might be able to get a more evidence-based answer by looking at some polling numbers like Obama approval or congressional GOP approval.

      Regardless, I think you’re right that the crisis will be averted — maybe not with a clean bill but at least with a bill that “dirties” up the McConnell proposal by attaching some spending cuts.

  6. David Lloyd-Jones July 14, 2011 at 9:29 pm #


    I don’t think it’s fair to say Gingrich went down over the government shut-down. It took far more than that: Gingrich was wildly, even nonsensically, out of control — over himself or over his circumstances. He had just taken millions from a publisher for his memoirs, was cheating on various women, and had welched on his promises of weekends and evenings at home for Congressional back benches.

    The thing that made be think he had totally flipped out was when he exploded at a bunch of college kids who had asked him “jockey or boxer?” on national TV.

    In the current case, too, there’s more to it than just the shut-down. Coast to coast Republican governors, candidates and overpaid public speakers compete with each other to create the anti-American outrage of the day. This is because they live in worlds based on several different and powerful mistakes, mainly two: the bizarre error of thinking that narrowly electing a Republican means endorsing the social policy of Ayn Rand, and the audience-fed mistake of thinking that the well dressed country-club crown cheering you are the American people.

    Thus the Republican melt-down happening before our eyes is not altogether about the financial crisis they have conjured up. Their financial screw-up is just one more damn thing in an over-all and through and through disjuction from reality.

    Why then is our attention on the financial mess? Easy: destroying the American economy is an event big enough to catch the attention of the press.

  7. Reggie Greene / The Logistician July 15, 2011 at 7:30 am #

    Running the Circus from the monkey cage. Great line. I refer to it as “herding cats.”

    During the last Presidential election, CSpan2 Book TV aired a program where the author discussed the results of his or her research, which suggested that something like 5-10% of Democrats , and 5-10% of Republicans, essentially debated and defined the ideological constructs of each party. The point was that the vast, vast, vast majority of the citizens of this country have their lives dictated by the most active and vocal members of society, who also happen to be more privileged .

    I strongly suspect that the same thing is occurring with the debt ceiling debate. The debate is not really about the debt ceiling per se, but rather a very deep, long-standing debate about the role and size of government. It’s never been resolved, and never will be resolved in our representative democracy. However, in the mean time, the regular folks in our society run the risk of being irreparably damaged. The elites (the upper and upper middle socio-economic classes) on each side of the fence have theirs, their corporate contributions, decent jobs and income, and will fare just fine economically. It’s the ordinary citizens (lower middle socio-economic class) who will most likely get screwed, no matter which side ultimately prevails in the short term.