Who Americans Usually Blame After Showdowns Over Federal Spending
Playing chicken with the national economy is not unusual for Congress and the president. There was the time that former President Donald Trump ground the government to a halt because he wanted money for his border wall. Oh, and the time that tea party Republicans threatened to send the U.S. into debt default if Congress didn’t slash spending.
In fact, since 2010, there have been no fewer than five major fiscal standoffs between Republicans and Democrats akin to the one(s) we’ll probably brave later this year. These crises had tangible economic consequences, including the furloughing of 800,000 federal workers and the downgrading of the U.S.’s credit rating. But they also had political repercussions for the elected officials who caused them. And that track record could give us an idea of whom Americans would blame if brinksmanship in Washington, D.C., again upsets the economic apple cart.
So I looked at what caused each of the five prior crises and what the polls said after they were resolved. The results bode poorly for Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his fellow Republicans: Since 2010 at least, the public has always blamed and soured on the GOP more than Democrats in the wake of these standoffs.
The OG debt-ceiling crisis
What happened: The first time most Americans had probably heard the term “debt ceiling” was in 2011, when it became a political football in a fight over spending. The debt ceiling establishes how much money the federal government can borrow to pay its existing financial obligations. If it were hit, the U.S. would eventually1 be forced to default on its debt, precipitating an economic crisis. So the debt ceiling had historically been raised regularly without controversy to avoid this.
The debt ceiling countdown begins | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
However, after the 2010 election ushered in a Republican majority in the House and gave the conservative tea party movement a seat at the table, Republicans demanded that then-President Barack Obama agree to cut spending in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. The two sides traded proposals, making little headway until July 31, 2011, when they struck a deal that raised the debt ceiling and cut spending. The compromise also scheduled across-the-board spending decreases — called “sequestration” — for 2013 if Congress couldn’t agree on a more specific cost-cutting plan. Obama signed the agreement into law on Aug. 2, just hours before the U.S. was expected to default.
What Americans thought: Republicans came out worse, but neither Obama nor Republicans emerged from the crisis in a good light. According to FiveThirtyEight’s historical presidential-approval average, Obama’s approval rating dropped by nearly 3 percentage points2 between July 15 and Aug. 10. But Congress’s approval rating sank by more. According to Gallup, it fell 5 points between July and August; according to The New York Times/CBS News, it fell 6 points between June and August.
While “Congress” consists of both Republicans and Democrats, CNN/ORC found that the favorability rating of the Republican Party also dropped 8 points between July and August. And FiveThirtyEight’s retroactive3 polling average of the generic congressional ballot suggests Democrats’ margin in head-to-head polls increased by almost 3 points4 between July 15 and Aug. 10. According to The New York Times/CBS News, 47 percent of Americans blamed Republicans in Congress for the feud more than they blamed Obama and the Democrats. Only 29 percent said the opposite — although 20 percent volunteered that both were equally at fault.
The so-called “fiscal cliff”
What happened: An economic double-whammy was narrowly averted. After the 2011 compromise, Congress couldn’t agree on a more specific cost-cutting plan, so sequestration was set to go into effect at the beginning of January 2013, immediately after tax cuts passed under former President George W. Bush were expiring. The combination of a sudden tax increase and spending decrease — deemed the “fiscal cliff” — threatened to plunge the U.S. into a recession.
After lengthy negotiations, Obama and congressional Republicans again reached a deal at the last minute. On Jan. 2, Obama signed a law that delayed sequestration by two months and made the Bush tax cuts permanent for all but the highest earners.
Kevin McCarthy is speaker, but he’s got a tough job ahead
What Americans thought: Americans approved more of Obama’s actions than of Republicans’, but neither party suffered a significant penalty. Obama’s average approval rating stayed around 53 percent during late December and early January, while Democrats’ average lead in generic congressional ballot polling rose only slightly.5
However, Gallup did detect a 4-point drop in Congress’s approval rating between December and January. The pollster also found that 46 percent of Americans approved of how Obama handled the negotiations, while only 25 percent approved of the way Republican leaders in Congress did. The Pew Research Center found an even wider gap: 48 percent approval for Obama’s handling of the negotiations and 19 percent for Republican leaders’.
The combined debt-ceiling crisis and government shutdown
What happened: Just months after the fiscal cliff, the U.S. faced two separate economic deadlines, blowing right past one and barely making the other. First, the country was once again slated to default if the debt ceiling was not raised by Oct. 17, 2013. Second, Congress needed to pass a budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 — but House Republicans insisted they would only pass a spending bill that defunded, or at least delayed implementation of, the Affordable Care Act. Obama and Senate Democrats refused, so the federal government partially shut down on Oct. 1, furloughing 800,000 federal employees and suspending many federal services like national parks.
The government remained closed for 16 days until Republicans finally caved as the country teetered on the brink of default. Shortly after midnight on Oct. 17, Obama signed a resolution that funded the government — Obamacare and all — and suspended the debt ceiling until 2014.
What Americans thought: They focused their anger on Republicans. Obama’s average approval rating held steady at around 44 percent throughout the shutdown. Meanwhile, Gallup found that Congress’s approval rating went from 19 percent in September to 11 percent in the middle of the shutdown to 9 percent in November. Democrats’ lead in generic ballot polling increased by almost 4 points6 between Sept. 22 and Oct. 28.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted just after the shutdown laid bare Republicans’ PR disaster. Congress’s approval rating was only 12 percent, and the favorability rating of the Republican Party was only 32 percent. Both were the lowest numbers the pollster had ever recorded. Disapproval over the GOP’s handling of the shutdown — already a dismal 63 percent on the eve of the shutdown — surged to 77 percent by the time it ended. Even Republicans and self-identified tea partiers disapproved.
According to ABC News/The Washington Post, 53 percent of Americans said Republicans were mainly responsible for the shutdown, 29 percent said Obama and 15 percent said both sides were equally responsible — similar numbers to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted during the shutdown. However, USA Today/Princeton Survey Research found that 39 percent of adults said Republicans deserved more blame, 19 percent said Democrats and 36 percent faulted both parties equally.
Americans are lonely. That has political consequences. | FiveThirtyEight Politics
The shutdown over immigration
What happened: The next government shutdown came less than five years later, but this time, it centered on immigration. In January 2018, Republicans controlled the White House, Senate and House. But Senate Democrats filibustered the GOP’s proposed spending bill because it did not address the status of immigrants covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which then-President Trump had ended in 2017. As a result, the federal government partially shut down on Jan. 20. However, Democrats quickly dropped their filibuster after Republicans promised to consider an immigration bill. The government reopened on Jan. 22.
What Americans thought: More Americans blamed Democrats than in the previous three standoffs, but most still faulted Republicans. In an average of four polls7 conducted during the shutdown, 36 percent of Americans felt that Democrats in Congress were responsible for it, 34 percent felt that Trump was responsible and 16 percent felt that Republicans in Congress were responsible.
However, the share that blamed Democrats (36 percent) versus the combined share that blamed Republicans (50 percent) was similar to Trump’s approval/disapproval ratings at the time (40 percent to 55 percent across those same four polls). So the public response broke down along partisan lines, and the national mood at the time was strongly Democratic-leaning. As a result, it didn’t significantly impact either party’s political fortunes. Trump’s approval rating in FiveThirtyEight’s average faltered by about 2 points8 between Jan. 17 and Jan. 23 but recovered to its old level by Feb. 3. And according to YouGov/The Economist, registered voters’ views of Democrats in Congress held steady at 36 percent favorable between Jan. 15 and Jan. 29. Democrats’ lead in the FiveThirtyEight generic congressional ballot polling average slipped less than 1 point9 during that span. However, according to Gallup, Congress’s approval rating did fall 5 points between January and February.
The longest shutdown in U.S. history
What happened: The most recent government shutdown was also fought over immigration, but this time, it took longer than three days to resolve. In December 2018, Republicans in Congress were well on their way to passing a spending bill when Trump announced he would not support it because it didn’t fund his proposed wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. House Republicans then passed a bill funding the wall, but Senate Democrats filibustered it. As a result, the government partially shut down on Dec. 22.
Democrats took control of the House on Jan. 3, 2019 (when the winners of the 2018 election were seated), giving them more leverage. After 35 days of back-and-forth — the most protracted government shutdown in American history — Trump finally blinked. On Jan. 25, he signed a stopgap funding bill that ended the shutdown and kicked a decision on the border wall down the road.
What Americans thought: A majority of Americans agreed: This one was on Trump. According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll and a YouGov/The Economist poll conducted just after the shutdown ended, 52 percent of registered voters blamed Trump the most for the shutdown. His famously stable approval rating also sank by nearly 3 points10 between Dec. 21 and Jan. 25.
While partisanship ensured that a significant minority of registered voters blamed Democrats in Congress (34 percent in the Morning Consult/Politico poll, 41 percent in YouGov/The Economist), if anything, they emerged from the shutdown more popular. According to YouGov/The Economist, their favorability rating increased by almost 2 points between Dec. 17 and Jan. 28. And Gallup found that Congress’s approval rating increased by 3 points between December and February.
Here in 2023, House Republicans have already made it clear that they will demand spending cuts, as they did in 2011, before raising the debt ceiling. And if history is any indication, Americans will see that as a reason to blame them for any ensuing chaos.
But Americans may not penalize the GOP at the ballot box for it. That’s because the political effects of these crises are short-lived; there’s always another news cycle that replaces it. After the 2011 debt-ceiling fight, Obama’s approval rating eventually recovered the ground it had lost. After the 2013 shutdown, the troubled launch of healthcare.gov reversed Republicans’ slide on the generic congressional ballot; by December they were polling better than before the shutdown. And after the 2018-19 shutdown, Trump’s approval rating shot back up to pre-shutdown levels within a month. Though he eventually lost reelection, a few other things were going on in 2020 that might explain that better.
Ergo, events, dear reader, events will probably put the memory of 2023’s fiscal turbulence in the rearview mirror by the time of the 2024 election. But that doesn’t make public opinion surrounding the debate irrelevant — far from it. Impasses like 2013’s and 2019’s were likely broken because Republicans felt intense public pressure to give in. So while Republicans probably don’t need to worry about losing an election due to their hard line on spending, they still ought to fret about losing public support: It will make it harder for them to stand firm in the showdown to come.