Fading Faith, Rising Fury: The Fallout from the Debt Ceiling Debacle

Americans have never had less faith in their government, and they’ve never been more justified.

About six weeks ago, I wrote:

This debt ceiling debacle is not acceptable. Americans have a right to be furious at both parties for all of this, and these events will accelerate the movement away from our current duopoly. What right do politicians have to threaten the economic security of all Americans because they are having an ideological quarrel? Most Americans mostly want to be left alone, not made the victims of a political system that has seemingly lost touch with what governance is.

The fallout from this debacle is increasingly clear. The latest New York Times/CBS pollsays that only 12 percent of Americans now approve of how Congress is doing its job. Eighty percent of both Republicans and Democrats say it is time to elect all new members of Congress.

But another recent poll by Bill MacInturff of Public Opinion Strategies makes a much more targeted point. To quote Bill, “The debt ceiling negotiation… is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government… It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both.”

Here are a few more of Bill’s comments:

• “The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence.”
• “This type of deep voter anger, unease, and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes.”
• “This is the rare ‘wow’ data. It represents a profound change in a matter of months.”
• “There is no precedent for an incumbent president being re-elected when the Michigan consumer sentiment index is at 75 or below.” (It is now at 55.7.)
• “Lord, they hate Washington right now” (a comment by one of the pollsters).

Keep in mind the following percentages: 78 percent, 73 percent, and 81 percent. Those are the percentages of those polled who, respectively, (1) were dissatisfied with how our political system is working, (2) lacked confidence in government to solve economic problems, and (3) lacked confidence in either President Obama or Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions.

The American people are completely right in their accelerating level of horror at how our political system is functioning and how our leaders are behaving. It is unimaginable that we actually had a debate in August over whether it was a good idea to default on debt the American government had issued with its full faith and credit. But, of course, we did.

I want briefly to take up the issue of “false even-handedness” and weak centrists blaming both sides. As an increasingly strong advocate of the radical center, I do blame both sides, but for different things. There is no question in my mind that the Republicans in Congress and specifically the Tea Party members were incomprehensibly irresponsible — I called them “clueless, hypocritical nihilists” and meant it. But where were any responsible alternatives? Where was the outrage from President Obama? The president should have called these crazies out for completely unacceptable behavior. That would have been the right thing to do, it would have been good for the country, and it would have been good for him.

This level of justified voter unhappiness, combined with our immediate and serious economic problems and the very real threat of a lost decade, means we cannot just waltz through the next few years thinking that this will all blow over and business as usual is enough. Getting out of the corner we have put ourselves in will require someone to bet the presidency on the proposition that the American people, at long last, are ready to listen to an adult message. President Obama should junk his current message, recognize where we stand today, and put forward a policy that is radical enough for the times.

Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team. He has also served in senior roles in the White Houses of two Democratic presidents.