The New York Times Monday morning carried an article reporting on Americans’ reactions to the current deficit/debt ceiling situation. The article began with a reference to President Obama's recently frequent discussion of American public opinion. As the Times author, Jesse McKinley, writes: “On Friday morning, President Obama insisted that he completely understood how the American people – a phrase he mentioned more than two dozen times – felt about the slow pace of negotiations over the debt ceiling.”
Obama's highly frequent references to the American people and to polls in his Friday press conference marks something of a change of heart. As I reviewed here, the president took pains in his Monday press conference last week to point out how one shouldn’t pay attention to public opinion on this issue, saying: “…The public is not paying close attention to the ins and outs of how a Treasury option goes. They shouldn’t. They're worrying about their family; they're worrying about their jobs; they're worrying about their neighborhood. They've got a lot of other things on their plate. We're paid to worry about it”
In his Friday morning press conference Obama -- among many references to the views of the people -- said this: “You have 80 percent of the American people who support a balanced approach. Eighty percent of the American people support an approach that includes revenues and includes cuts. So the notion that somehow the American people aren’t sold is not the problem.”
Here are the basic data Obama was using as the basis for his statement:
Obviously, Obama or the advisers who briefed him came up with the “80%” figure by subtracting the percentage choosing the “only with spending cuts” option from 100%.
But that’s not quite right. If you do the math, you see that the total who want an approach that includes revenues and cuts is actually 69%: 30% who want mostly spending cuts, 32% who want equal spending cuts and tax increases, and 7% who want mostly tax increases. Four percent want only tax increases and another 6% said they didn’t have an opinion (the table doesn’t add up to 100% due to rounding errors). So the president should have said: "You have 69% of the American people who support a balanced approach. Sixty-nine percent of the American people support an approach that includes revenues and includes cuts. So the notion that somehow the American people aren’t sold is not the problem.”
The spirit of what the president said was true; the precise numbers he used were not.
In his extraordinary press conference on Friday, Obama went on to say a lot more about the public’s opinion on the deficit/debt situation, including:
- My hope, though, is that they’re listening not just to lobbyists or special interests here in Washington, but they’re also listening to the American people. Because it turns out poll after poll, many done by your organizations, show that it’s not just Democrats who think we need to take a balanced approach; it’s Republicans as well.
- The clear majority of Republican voters think that any deficit reduction package should have a balanced approach and should include some revenues. That’s not just Democrats; that’s the majority of Republicans.
- So this is not just a Democratic understanding; this is an understanding that I think the American people hold….
- And so this is not a matter of the American people knowing what the right thing to do is. This is a matter of Congress doing the right thing and reflecting the will of the American people.
- You know why I have hope? It’s because of the American people. When I talk to them and I meet with them, as frustrated as they are about this town, they still reflect good common sense. And all we have to do is align with that common sense on this problem, it can get solved.
Now, it may be that Obama is in his own mind making a nuanced distinction between the positive functions of the broad direction the American people would give their elected representatives, and the American people’s inability to provide direction in terms of very specific particulars. (It’s also true that politicians frequently will decry polls when they contradict their positions or policy stances, but will happily quote them when they are supportive.)
Nevertheless, any emphasis on paying attention to what the American people want -- including looking at and paying attention to well-done public opinion polls -- is a good thing in my opinion. The collective views of the people are wise, and to ignore them is not only quite often to commit political folly, but also a genuine waste of very valuable input into the tough decisions of our time.