PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are more likely to believe the current budget debate between President Barack Obama and the Republicans in Congress is an attempt by both sides to gain political advantage (47%) than an important battle over principles and the future direction of government (37%). These views are similar to Americans' attitudes on the day the government shut down in November 1995 as a result of that year's political impasse when 52% said the budget debate was political, while 37% said it was based on disagreement about principles.
One difference between the two shutdown situations: Americans are slightly more likely now to say they have no opinion in response to this question than they were in 1995. This difference may be the result of Gallup asking the question in 1995 on the day that the shutdown began, while the current survey was conducted Sept. 27-28, several days before the Oct. 1 shutdown deadline.
Republicans tilt in the direction of seeing the current debate as an important battle over principles, while Democrats are more likely to adopt the more cynical view that the debate is politically motivated. Independents are more likely than either of the other groups to see the debate as political. Still, the differences between Republicans' and Democrats' views on this situation are not as large as they are in reference to most political issues.
In the 1995 survey, all three political groups were more likely to say the debate was politically motivated rather than based on principle, although Democrats in that survey were the least likely to tilt in that direction. Thus, in 1995 and now, Democrats have been somewhat more likely to see politics at work in the shutdown negotiations than Republicans.
Americans Give Obama Slight Edge as Acting More Responsibly
In the current situation, Americans are slightly more likely to say that President Obama is acting responsibly in regards to the current budget conflict than to say that about the Republican leaders in Congress, by 40% to 35%. Throughout the 1995 government shutdown, Americans also tended to give more credit to the president for acting responsibly than to the Republican leaders in Congress, by margins of between one and 14 percentage points from mid-December 1995 through February 1996.
About three-quarters of Republicans say the Republicans in Congress are acting most responsibly, while about three-quarters of Democrats say President Obama is acting more responsibly. This pattern of partisan loyalty is typical in Americans' responses to questions that focus on choices between two partisan entities. Less than 10% of both political groups deviate from this partisan loyalty and say the "other" political actor is handling the situation more responsibly. Independents are basically split in their choice, but they are slightly more likely to say that they don't have an opinion on who is acting more responsibly.
While both the president and Republican leaders in Congress would no doubt say they are basing their positions and actions regarding the budget showdown on conviction and principle, Americans tends to disagree. The public tilts toward the view that the debate is mainly focused on an attempt by both sides to reap political gain. Although there are differences between the existing shutdown situation and the last government shutdown in late 1995 and early 1996, Americans' current attitudes about the motivation of the key players in the dispute are similar to what they were in the past.
The ultimate effect of the 1995/1996 government shutdown on the country and the key players involved is difficult to pinpoint precisely. However, there is no question that President Clinton's job approval ratings were generally above the 50% mark after the shutdown in 1996 and he cruised to a re-election victory over his Republican opponent in the fall of that year. It is too early to say what the effect of the current potential shutdown might be on the political fortunes of either Obama or the two major parties. At this point, the public tends to be slightly more likely to give Obama credit for acting responsibly than the Republican leaders in Congress, just as they gave President Clinton slightly more credit 18 years ago during the shutdown.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 27-28, 2013, on the Gallup Daily tracking survey, with a random sample of 1,024 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, cellphone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.