Public Divided On Debt Debate

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that the public is closely divided the debt limit debate. It also shows that a great number of people do not understand the consequences of failing to raise the debt limit. Host Linda Wertheimer speaks Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, about the findings.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Good morning.

Another week of difficult bargaining lies ahead for the White House and congressional Republicans. The deadline for raising the debt ceiling is now a little over two weeks away. And even though some possible paths to a deal had been floated by the Republican leaders, it's not at all clear the votes will be there for passage.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and The Washington Post, says the public is closely divided on what the risks are in this debt limit debate. The poll also shows that a substantial number of people are not confident they understand the consequences of failing to raise the debt limit.

Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center.

Andy, thank you for joining us.

ANDREW KOHUT: Happy to be with you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you had a survey at the end of May and then another one, which was earlier this month, on what the American people think ought to happen in this debt limit debate. And in the interval between the end of May and early July, opinions appear to have changed.

KOHUT: They sure have. In May, by a margin of 48 to 35, people thought the greater risk was raising the ceiling that would lead to greater debt. And a smaller number, the 35, thought that the greater risk was that we'd go into default if the ceiling is not raised. But almost all of the change over that period came from political independents.

WERTHEIMER: Now, if that's the case, if independents are now concerned about defaults and are sort of bringing this whole concerned close to a tie in public opinion, how are politicians going to read that?

KOHUT: Well, independents decide elections.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

KOHUT: So right now, they are pretty evenly divided as opposed to being more concerned about raising the debt. And if they go further in either direction, there is some political risks for the two sides.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that happened when the president had a news conference on Friday, he was basically asked if he should have been selling his approach harder to the American people. Here's what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE HOUSE PRESS CONFERENCE)

President BARACK OBAMA: This is not an issue salesmanship to the American people. The American people are sold. The American people are sold. I just want a repeat this.

CHUCK TODD: You don't think the debate would have been different if you had Republicans support on it.

OBAMA: Chuck...

TODD: Tom Coburn, the Republican senator...

Chuck.

OBAMA: Chuck, you have 80 percent of the American people who support a balanced approach.

WERTHEIMER: Balanced approach, the president is cutting spending and raising revenues at the same time, to create the compromise that would permit the Republicans to go ahead and vote for the debt ceiling to go up. But is he right?

KOHUT: Well, that's what our polling shows. Twenty percent saying he should be only cutting programs, six percent saying it should be primarily tax cuts or only tax cuts. But 64 percent say it should be a combination of both. There's no public support for one way on this issue. And when you get 64 percent saying both, that means there are many Republicans expressing that view, it's not just Democrats and independents.

WERTHEIMER: Even for those people who, very strongly believe that the American government is too big and it spends too much money, are very reluctant to see any kind of substantial cuts come to the big entitlement programs, like Medicare, for example, which is a very, very expensive program, and is one of the places where the president has said that cuts would have to come in a balanced approach.

KOHUT: Yeah, there's a 2-to-1 margin over all about preserving the benefits for these entitlement programs - Medicare and Social Security is more important than the reducing the deficit. This comes at a time when the public is very concerned about the deficit. They didn't say this lightly. Among the republicans overall, you have a little majority saying, well, it should be the deficit should take higher priority.

But when you unpack the republicans you realize that it's the affluent Republicans - republicans who earn $70,000 or more - who say the deficit should take priority. Less affluent republicans and independents who lean Republican go the other direction. What they say is no, don't touch those entitlements - even though in other questions these people are deficit hawks.

WERTHEIMER: Where do the American people think the cuts should come if there are cuts?

KOHUT: Well, many of them if not most of them think the cuts should come from those programs that are wasteful or from fraud and abuse. And when we test the whole range of problems, we get relatively few where people say, yeah, we can live with that sacrifice.

So this problem is going to be solved in spite of public opinion, not with the blessing of public opinion. And it becomes a question of what can you get the American public to accept with respect to many of these programs that they feel very committed to and that's a dicey game.

WERTHEIMER: Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Thank you very much.

KOHUT: You're welcome.

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