If Moses Polled the Israelites…Why Public Opinion Is Of Little Help In Solving the Debt Crisis

So, when it comes to solving the debt crisis, what do Americans want?  More importantly, are politicians even listening?  Should they be listening – is public opinion, as measured by surveys, even a reliable guide to policymakers? To answer these questions, in this post I want to summarize some survey data dealing with the debt crisis. As I noted in my last post, President Obama cautioned that survey results regarding how to solve the debt impasse differ depending on survey question wording.  He is exactly right.  But, citing surveys, he also claimed that 80% of Americans want the debt crisis solved using a “balanced” approach that presumably involves a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts.  That includes a “clear majority” of Republicans who support tax hikes.  As it turns out, it’s not as simple as that, at least as far as one can tell from the surveys (and the part about a majority of Republicans supporting tax cuts is misleading). It does seem true that Americans support compromise solutions,  at least in general; according to a  poll described in today’s USAToday 67% of those surveyed say they want Obama and the Republicans to compromise, “even if that means policymakers have to accept a plan with provisions they don’t like. Twenty-seven percent say lawmakers should hold out for the plan with everything they want, even if that means the debt ceiling isn’t raised by the Aug. 2 deadline.”

So it seems Americans want compromise.  The problem, however, is that when presented with specific compromise proposals, support drops off. It turns out the public is a lot like politicians – they advocate compromise, but then reject compromise proposals that involve making hard choices.

Let’s begin with a basic overview of where the public stands in the debt debate. Mark Halperin at Pollster.com summarized several surveys asking whether people favored or opposed raising the debt limit.

As you can see, a plurality and sometimes a majority of respondents consistently opposed raising the debt limits. However, two cautions are in order here: first, these polls date back to the beginning of the debt debate, so they may not capture recent changes in attitudes. A more recent CBS polls indicates support for raising the debt limit going up, although a plurality of Americans still oppose doing so.

More importantly, however, when provided a “don’t know enough” option, as is the case with the Gallup and Wall St. Journal polls, fully a third of respondents check this box, indicating  many Americans are not confident they understand the details of the debate.

Now, let’s look at how Americans want to solve the debt crisis.  Here’s where things get interesting.  As Obama indicated, there is support for a balanced approach involving both tax hikes and spending cuts, but of the two, Americans are much more supportive of making spending cuts, as illustrated by this Gallup Poll.

Interestingly, even among Democrats support for focusing on spending cuts is greater than relying on tax increases:

Ok, if Americans support spending cuts, what would they like to see reduced?  Let’s consider the major spending programs, where the most money can be saved.  How about Social Security?  Nope.  Medicare?  Natch.  Medicaid, then?  No.  Military spending?  Probably not.   (For particulars see these polls by the Pew Research Center and ABC/WaPo). About the only programs that voters would like to see cut are the perennial whipping boys: foreign aid and spending on overseas military commitments. (Never mind that the public consistently overestimates how much is spent on these programs.)  Indeed, we find more support in these two polls for targeted tax increases (raising tax rates on those earning more than $250,000, closing tax loopholes, ending subsidies, etc.) than for cutting spending on the major government entitlement programs.

What we see, then, is a public about evenly split on the necessity of raising the debt limit, although as debate goes on support for raising the limit increases. People do want a “balanced’ approach to reducing the deficit – if by balanced one means predominantly focusing on spending cuts as opposed to raising taxes.  However, when offered a choice of specific spending reductions, support drops off while support increases for limited, targeted tax increases.

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Harry Truman once responded to adverse polling results by asking, “How far would Moses have gone if he had taken a poll in Egypt?”  Truman’s point is a reminder that we live in a republic, not a democracy.  The Framers created a representative system of government in which elected officials were largely insulated from direct popular opinion, except for elections.  Leadership meant refining public opinion, not being led by it.  Looking at the polling pertaining to the debt impasse, we can understand the Framers’ reasoning. It is often the case that public opinion is not a reliable guide to making difficult policy choices. The worry today, however, is that in a 24/7 news cycle that feeds on polling data, the insulation protecting elected officials from direct popular opinion that the Framers expected  has been stripped away.  I don’t mean to suggest that politicians blindly follow the polling results – as we see here in examining recent surveys, there is no clear message emerging from polls on how to solve the debt impasse.  Instead, elected officials have become increasingly adept at using polling to provide political cover to do what they want to do anyway.  We see this in the debt crisis debate, with politicians and their activist supporters eagerly citing portions of those polls that they believe buttress their preferred policy options.

In the end, Obama, Republicans and Democrats are going to have to choose a policy option, secure in the knowledge that when they do, a sizable portion of the activist segment of the political community will accuse them of cowardice, treason and moral turpitude. Following the Framers, however, I also believe the public at large will reward leadership – particularly leadership that centers on compromise.  Time will tell if I am right, or if we are destined to remain stuck in our own budgetary Egypt, slaves to rising deficits.

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