What Americans think about the debt ceiling fight

American flag with hundred dollar bills

For most Americans, the debt ceiling is something abstract and technical that officials in Washington fight about. They have a hard time understanding the impact that this issue could have on their daily lives, and they do not appear to be listening to the warnings that policy experts are issuing with increasing urgency. The following contradictory and ambiguous poll findings illustrate the problem.

Many economists and budget experts predict that a default would trigger significant interest rate increases, a fall in the stock market, instability throughout the financial system, and the weakening of the dollar’s leading role in the global economy. Still the people don’t believe them, at least not yet. When a recent Economist/YouGov survey asked voters whether a failure to raise the debt ceiling followed by a default on the national debt would be a crisis, only 37% answered in the affirmative. Forty percent thought it would be a major problem but not a crisis, and the rest regarded this prospect as at most a minor problem.

Most Americans do believe that the federal government spends too much and has accumulated too much debt, but they are not sure what to do about these problems. According to some polls, the debt ceiling should be raised only in return for spending cuts; according to others, these issues should not be linked. A recent Harvard/Harris survey found that 64% of voters think that Republicans should agree to raise the debt ceiling only if Democrats agree to spending restraints. But the most recent Washington Post/ABC survey found the reverse: only 28% of respondents want President Biden to agree to spending cuts in return for Republicans allowing the federal government to pay its debts, compared to 59% who want spending cuts and the debt ceiling to be addressed as separate rather than linked issues.

One possible interpretation: many people don’t yet understand the link between the debt ceiling and debt default. A recent CBS News poll informed voters that “the debt ceiling is the legal limit the federal government can borrow to pay its current debts” and then asked whether Congress should raise the ceiling. Forty-six percent said that Congress should do so; more (54%) said that it should not. But when informed failing to raise the ceiling could result in the U.S. defaulting on its current debt, only 30% continued to say that the ceiling should not be increased.

Elected officials typically care who will be blamed more if something goes wrong. During the debt ceiling fight of 2011, 42% of voters said that they would blame the Republicans for failing to raise the ceiling, compared to 33% who would blame then-president Obama. This time, the crystal ball is more clouded: 40% say they will blame the Republicans, but nearly as many (37%) would blame President Biden.

But there is a key difference between 2011 and today — the rate of inflation, which has soared to the top of voters’ concerns. According to veteran Republican pollster David Winston, large majorities of Americans now believe that inflation is linked to high levels of federal spending and debt, which makes them more open to fiscal restraint as part of a package of changes that includes raising the debt ceiling. But unlike some other surveys, Winston’s poll finds 57% of voters fearing that the consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling could be “catastrophic”.

Looming over these contradictory statistics is a basic fact about American politics: since the 1932 election, voters have held the president responsible for overall economic conditions. If not raising the debt ceiling brings about the catastrophe that many experts fear, Joe Biden is likely to pay a price, even if his Republican challenger advocated an inflexible position that contributed to the default. Although the president and his advisors seem confident that they have the upper hand in this fight, a debt default could propel the Republican presidential candidate to victory in 2024.