Sep 01, 2011
Well, it’s come to this: even finding a time for the president to speak to Congress has become complicated.
The public doesn’t like this kind of toxic politics, and you can see it in the survey results. After the debt ceiling fight, everybody’s poll numbers are in decline: the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Tea Party. Congress’ approval rating is at a record low level. Some 86 percent say they’re “frustrated” or “angry” with the federal government (with one-quarter saying they’re “angry.”) The survey analyst Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies says the debt ceiling debate has led to “a scary erosion in confidence … at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded.”
In Washington, the pundits have already started talking about what this means for the next election. They should be more worried about what it means for governing the country.
In focus groups and public engagement efforts around the national debt, average Americans can be pretty reasonable about the budget. They can talk about the problem, and they’re usually open to a wide range of solutions. But there’s one concern that’s been a consistent stumbling block for years: trust. How do we know, they ask, that if the government raises taxes or cuts spending that the money will be spent responsibly?
It’s a fair question. And it’s a question that the current budget debate isn’t helping to answer. The debt ceiling showdown clearly didn’t make the American public believe its leaders can act responsibly. That doesn’t bode well for whatever might come out of the “supercommittee” examining ways to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion. There’s a theory in Washington that the key to a solution on the budget is to lock the players in a room until they agree. Unfortunately, whatever those leaders agree to inside the room also has to be persuasive to the rest of us who are outside the room. Otherwise, the deal won’t stick. Even the automatic budget cuts set to go into effect should Congress fail to pass the supercommittee plan could be reversed – and may well be, if the American public doesn’t buy into them.
The fact is that Washington may be bleeding money, but it’s throwing away trust. And our fiscal problems can’t be solved unless the American public trusts our elected leaders to come up with solutions. This affects both sides of the budget debate. The public isn’t going to let Washington either raise taxes or cut spending about without their consent. The toxic atmosphere in Washington is just making that consent more difficult to get.