Voters Fear Debt Deal Will Hurt Medicare

Pressing: Obama strikes urgent tone.   (National Journal)

Americans expressed more trust in President Obama than in congressional Republicans to make decisions about both the federal deficit and debt ceiling, but continued to display little urgency about the risk of default if the two sides remain stalemated, a new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll found.

Call it the great disconnect. In Washington and on Wall Street, fears are rising that global financial markets will tumble if the two parties cannot reach an agreement by August 2 to hike the federal debt ceiling. But in the survey, Americans still expressed much more anxiety about other economic challenges—and appeared less concerned that Congress would fail to raise the nation's borrowing limit than that it would include unacceptable ingredients in any deficit-reduction package accompanying such an increase. Such attitudes may explain why Obama struck such an urgent tone in Monday night's address.

The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International on July 21-24, surveying 999 adults. The poll has a margin of error for the full sample of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points (the margin is larger for sample subgroups). This poll was the first in a series of national surveys that will track the public's priorities for Congress—and its assessment of Washington's performance—during most weeks that Congress is in session through 2012.

The best news for Obama in the survey is that a solid plurality of Americans expressed more trust in him than in congressional Republicans to make decisions on the intertwined issues of raising the borrowing limit and reducing long-term debt. On the subject of the deficit, 46 percent of respondents said they trust Obama most to "make the right decisions," while 34 percent said they place more faith in congressional Republicans. Regarding the debt ceiling, a virtually identical 46 percent leaned toward Obama and 35 percent chose the GOP.

The result on each question showed little change in the polling conducted before and after House Speaker John Boehner abruptly cut off talks with the White House on Friday over a "grand bargain" to reduce the deficit.

Attitudes generally fractured along familiar political fault lines. On each issue, not surprisingly, just over three-fourths of self-identified Republicans preferred the GOP and slightly more than four-fifths of Democrats picked Obama. In each case, independents give Obama a single-digit advantage.

Similarly, on each question, about three-fifths of minorities preferred Obama, while only about one-fifth preferred Republicans. Whites divided exactly in half over which side they trust more on both questions; that's a relatively strong showing for Obama, whose numbers usually trail the GOP's among whites on most issues—often by substantial margins. Although blue-collar whites narrowly preferred the GOP on both issues, college-educated whites provided Obama with a narrow advantage on the deficit issue and a substantial edge, 49 percent to 37 percent, in trust on handling the debt ceiling.

These findings suggest that the sustained confrontation over the debt ceiling is helping Obama regain some ground with swing voters, especially the white-collar whites who provided him critical support in 2008 but moved sharply toward the GOP in last year's midterm election. Yet, it's not clear how much Obama's advantage over Republicans in this survey—which echoes the results of other recent polls—will benefit him in the immediate confrontation. That's because despite expressing more trust in Obama, much of the public still resists his assessment of the stakes of the standoff.

On the broadest question, Americans remain divided almost exactly in half on whether they would prefer increasing the debt ceiling at all. In the survey, 45 percent of those polled said their greater concern was that "raising the debt limit would lead to higher government spending and make the national debt bigger." Meanwhile, 43 percent said they were more concerned that "not raising the debt limit would force the government into default and hurt the nation's economy."

That result reflects more concern about default than when PSRA asked the question in May. But despite a cascade of recent warnings from public and private-sector officials, the latest result shows virtually no more alarm than earlier in July, when 47 percent of respondents said they worried more about a deal that could hike spending and 42 percent expressed more concern about default.

Two other questions reinforced that result. The possibility of default placed only a distant fourth when Americans were asked to rank the country's most pressing economic problem: 34 percent of those polled picked unemployment; 25 percent identified the rising cost of necessities like gasoline and food; 15 percent tabbed the size of the federal deficit; and just 10 percent cited the risk that the government would default on its debts. Only slow growth in wages (at 8 percent) ranked lower.

Even more striking were the results to another question asking respondents to identify the possible outcomes of the debt-ceiling debate that most concerned them. Just 17 percent said that their biggest concern was "a default on the federal debt that could raise interest rates for things like mortgages and consumer loans."

The most prevalent concern, by far, was a worry from the left: 39 percent said they worried most that Washington would reach "an agreement that cuts too much from government programs like Medicare and Social Security." Nearly an equal number picked a pair of concerns, in effect, from the right: 19 percent said they worried most about "an agreement that authorizes too much federal spending" and 17 percent said they most feared "an agreement that raises taxes on people like you."

Education levels marked a clear divide in apprehension about raising the debt ceiling. Across all the questions, college graduates were much more likely than those without degrees to fear default.

College graduates, including whites, were also much more likely to say that the GOP would bear the blame if default occurs rather than Obama. Overall, 31 percent of those surveyed said they would blame congressional Republicans most for a breakdown, compared to 23 percent who would blame the president and 13 percent who would fault congressional Democrats. But among college graduates, fully 42 percent said they would most blame Republicans—almost double the 22 percent who would fault Obama if Washington teeters into an historic default next week.

National Journal