Nobody Likes the Budget Debate

Americans don't like big policy debates that drag on and on in a partisan stalemate, and the current fight over government spending and debt is no exception.

Since President Obama and House Republicans engaged in a shutdown showdown and fired opening shots over the debt ceiling and long-term fiscal options, their approval numbers are down either across the board or in key subsets.

Obama has fallen from a 50-percent approval rating in late January to a 42 percent rating today, according to Gallup. The president had ridden high on his decision to extend the Bush tax cuts in exchange for an end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and the wave of lame duck session legislation that followed, but he's taken a nosedive since.

House Speaker John Boehner's overall approval rating has gone up since the year began, but he's down among Republicans: Gallup shows 56 of Republicans now view him favorably, a pretty good number to be sure, but down from 65 percent in January.

Congress's approval rating, which is always low, has dropped from 24 percent in February to 16 percent last week, according to CBS polling. (Gallup figures show it stagnating.)

In general, people are downcast these days. Americans are more pessimistic about the nation's trajectory, and about the economy, than they've been at any point in the Obama era, CBS found last week. An April 9-10 CNN poll showed 36 percent still thinking the economy is in a downturn, vs. 24 percent who think the economy is starting recover -- although those numbers are an improvement since CNN's fall polling.

Americans seem to be especially turned off by high-profile partisan gridlock over big, tough issues. During the health-care debate, Obama's approval tanked significantly. In late June, just as the legislative process began to drag, Gallup registered a 60 percent approval rating for the president. By the time he signed the health-care bill into law, his rating had fallen 10 points, to 50 percent.

In 1995, Newt Gingrich's disapproval rating reached as high as 65 percent during his budget showdown with President Clinton, Gary Langer of Langer Research Associates reminds us. Democrats were quick to attempt parallels between Gingrich and Boehner as the prospect of government shutdown loomed, but Boehner came out well in the FY2011 fight. He avoided a shutdown and pressured Democrats into agreeing to spending cuts well beyond what they originally were comfortable with, though some Republicans still complain that it wasn't enough.

Politicans are now discussing the future sustainability of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security -- and they all agree that current spending levels are unsustainable. It's telling that tax hikes are by far the most popular solution to this problem, according to some polls. Nobody likes tax hikes. The entire menu of options is unpalatable.

President Obama's approval rating is now lower among seniors (36 percent) than it is in the South (39 percent) according to Gallup's breakdown. According to ABC/Washington Post polling, 78 percent would oppose cutting spending on Medicare to reduce the national debt -- one of the cornerstones of the GOP budget plan being offered by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (Wisc.).

Given that this debate is just ramping up, and that the debt-ceiling fight will begin in earnest in May, it seems we're just on the cusp of a new bout of unpleasantness. Ahead lie brutal legislative fights that will likely involve months-long stalemates before offering up solutions no one really wants to have to swallow. It's only a matter of time before poll numbers tank even further.