Quinnipiac released their Florida poll numbers on the President and the debt ceiling bill, and they do not bode well for his 2012 chances in the swing state. His approval among Independents went from 42% last Wednesday through Sunday to 33% from Monday through Tuesday, while disapproval shot up from 52% to 61%. When asked to describe how they feel about the deal, more Independents said they were “angry” (23%) than either Republicans or Democrats.
In order to contextualize the bind that this puts Obama in, it’s worth recounting what I’ve been told about how the deal went down.
Senate sources confirm they were told that the President had agreed to a deal with John Boehner that included $800 billion in revenue. But then the Gang of Six released the details of their deal on July 19, which included $1 trillion in revenue and an end to the Bush tax cuts. Senate Democrats had pitch forks and torches ready for Jack Lew two days later when he went to the Hill to tell them that not only had they been excluded from the Boehner negotiations, but that they were now expected to pass a deal that was worse than the Gang of Six deal most of them had signed on to. So Obama went back to Boehner and asked for $400 billion more in revenues. Boehner got angry because he felt Obama was welching on the deal they already had, which Boehner knew he would have a tough time selling to his caucus anyway. And that’s when Boehner walked out of the negotiations, on Friday July 22.
By the time the President launched his Twitter war on the GOP the following Friday, July 29, I was under the impression that it was the Republicans who were obstructing a deal on the debt ceiling. But according to sources in both the Senate and the House who were engaged in conversations with the White House at the time, it was the administration that was holding out at that point. As late as July 24 Boehner said the deal was still on the table, but the White House thought they could box the Republicans into a better deal if Obama used the bully pulpit.
Whatever resolve the President had on Friday when he began his Twitter attack evidently collapsed on Saturday when his Gallup numbers went from bad to worse. On Friday his approval numbers hit a new low of 40% approve, 50% disapprove. But on Saturday they moved to 40% approve, 52% disapprove. At that point the White House panicked and tried to go back and salvage the Boehner deal (which was described by administration officials to Politico as the White House making “our last play” on Saturday morning). Sources say they decided to bite the bullet, accept a zero revenue deal and determined to spend the next year “making it up to liberals.”
I scratched my head and asked how a deal that the CBO concluded would increase unemployment and slow GDP growth over the course of the next year could possibly put the President in a better position for the next election. The response was that they were so worried about the direction of the poll numbers they believed they had to do this or none of that would matter, and would worry about that later.
That led to the weird back-and-forth between the Senate Democrats and Mitch McConnell on Saturday. Harry Reid called for a quorum call at 5:50 pm to speak to the entire Senate. At 6:05 he announced that McConnell had given a press conference to say that he was in talks with the White House and that was a lie. McConnell responded by saying that he had been on the phone with Joe Biden when he had to hang up to come to the floor in response to Reid’s quorum call. Most accounts of the Saturday negotiations confirm that Biden and McConnell were in talks all day, so McConnell was evidently telling the truth.
Reid was also telling the truth when he said McConnell would not deal with him. McConnell apparently did insist on negotiating directly with the White House. But according to both Mike Allen and Senate sources familiar with the negotiations, McConnell refused to negotiate with the President himself. Politico reports that McConnell insisted on dealing with Biden because he felt “other Democrats, especially Obama, would prove to be less trustworthy bargaining partners.” Sources say this was at Boehner’s insistence, because McConnell felt he was was “tied to the hip” with Boehner in the deal.
And indeed he was. Per Mike Allen:
Biden would make a proposal, and McConnell would pad the narrow, red-carpeted hallway behind the rotunda that links his office to Boehner’s, staffers said. The speaker made the return trip several times himself, standing in shirtsleeves and puffing smoke as McConnell, a non-smoker, listened intently in the impeccable suit some aides suspect he wears 24 hours a day.
Boehner was still angry because he felt Obama had not honored their earlier deal, which led to his tirade on the House floor: “I stuck my neck out by a mile to get an agreement with the president of the United States,” said Boehner. “Hey, I put revenues on the table in order to try to come to an agreement in order to avert us being where we are.”
But whereas the earlier deal with Boehner had $800 billion in revenue, by Saturday Boehner smelled the administration’s desperation for a deal and took all revenues off the table. That put the White House in the position where Obama had to go back on his threat to veto a bill that did not include revenues, and accept a deal that was $800 billion lower than the one Boehner had agreed to the previous week. But the White House was focused on the singular goal of stopping the hemorrhaging in Obama’s poll numbers, so they accepted it after McConnell agreed to a fig leaf about phantom defense cuts which Democratic leaders could use to sell the deal to their caucuses:
‘The defense cuts sold them. Basically $800 to $900 billion of the $2.1 trillion is in defense or security cuts,’ a senior Democratic aide told POLITICO. ‘Biden kept saying, that when all things were factored in, it was basically a 50-50 on defense and domestic spending cuts.'”
But as Dave Dayen notes, the agreement called for fewer cuts to the Pentagon than the President’s budget had, so the Pentagon actually made out better to the tune of $50 billion dollars. He also notes that “these kinds of cuts could be shifted to personnel in the form of health care and pensions for active duty military, not the weapons of war.” The notion that there was anything in the bill in the end that was more than a cosmetic victory for Democrats is largely illusory.
On the day of the vote, Democrats in the House were told by Joe Biden that if the bill did not pass, Obama would use the 14th Amendment. Despite protestations of Obama to the contrary, the White House apparently believed that the President did have the authority to invoke the 14th Amendment, they just thought it would be too politically toxic.
Today the horse race analysts take a look at Gallup’s latest poll numbers, which indicate that a slim majority of liberals (51%) approve of the deal, whereas Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly oppose it. They conclude from this that “more liberals sided with Obama than with the liberal opinion elite” like Paul Krugman, Bernie Sanders and Daily Kos. But I imagine this is more a reflection of the fact that liberals thought that the debt ceiling needed to be raised period, whereas conservatives did not. Roughly 1/5 of liberals consider the deal “a step forward,” and an equal number consider it “a step back,” with 52% choosing “neither.” That hardly represents a glowing endorsement of the deal.
Taken together, the Gallup numbers and the Quinnipiac numbers underscore the problem for the President right now. Independents are tracking with Republicans on the debt ceiling deal, and their intensity of feeling around it is not low. At the same time, they White House understands they need to win the approval of liberals — their new focus on jobs they hope will “get Paul Krugman off their backs.”
How do they do both? Well as Brad DeLong notes, pursuing economic policy to create jobs and make the economy better would be the obvious answer. “The goal is not to appease Paul Krugman but to actually generate a strong recovery,” says DeLong. “To aim at the first rather than the second won’t do much good–and won’t even accomplish the first.” But the polls, rather than the economists, appear to be in the driver’s seat at the White House these days.