With the sequester drama reaching its zenith, both Republicans and Democrats are arguing over the likely effects of the budget cuts. But another substrata of discussion, one that is receiving a great deal of attention, is what the public thinks of the sequester. After NBC News and The Wall Street Journal gave a description of the sequester, 21% of Americans said it was a good idea and 52% of Americans said it was a bad idea. Quinnipiac found similar results. Twenty-two percent wanted the cuts to take place, while 43% did not want them to take effect.
Arguments concerning the public’s opinion about these cuts get slippery quickly. They roll from discussing the likely public relations outcome to what course of action is best because of public opinion. If the polls decree it, it must be so.
It should be noted that in both the NBC and Quinnipiac polls, the number of Americans who did not express an opinion was high. In the NBC poll, 25% did not have an opinion even after a lengthy explanation. Thirty-two percent did not have an opinion in the Quinnipiac poll. Results that high generally indicate Americans don’t have a firm opinion on the matter. Or perhaps they don’t care. Many journalists seem to be at that point.
Pew asked Americans about their knowledge of the sequester. Only 18% of Americans felt they understood the effects of the sequester cuts very well. Thirty-five percent said fairly well, 46% said they understood them not too well or not at all well. While opinions may be rapidly changing due to intense media coverage, the Pew poll fits in with an overall trend of low knowledge.
Those who cite public opinion as an argument against the sequester should tell us why a public with low levels of knowledge about it should be a factor in the discussion. They seem to readily acknowledge that they don’t know a whole lot about the issue.
Bringing public opinion into the debate raises an additional question. Why is the sequester a unique data point for public policy guidance? What about the debt ceiling, a debate this country’s had a time or two in the past few years? I would suspect Americans have firmer opinions about it. In a new Bloomberg poll, 71% of Americans favored spending cuts to go along with raising the debt ceiling. Twenty-one percent preferred to raise it without any conditions.
More than one article ridiculing the sequester has railed against the debt ceiling. But why is public opinion appropriate in one, but not the other? Maybe it’s time for the policy discussion to center on what would actually happen, versus what people think might happen.