It’s widely assumed that if no agreement is reached in the fiscal cliff negotiations, many more voters will blame congressional Republicans than blame Barack Obama and congressional Democrats. That assumption has been supported by some polling. But this week’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll has a question that casts some doubt on this. The question reads: “And, if there is no compromise on the fiscal cliff and the automatic spending cuts and tax increases go into effect, who do you think will be to blame for this–President Obama and the Democrats in Congress, the Republicans in Congress, or do you think they will be equally to blame?” The result: 19% say Obama and the Democrats would be more to blame, 24% say the Republicans would be more to blame and 56% say they would be equally to blame. A November 2012 survey conducted for CNBC by the same pollsters, Democrat Peter Hart (for whom I worked between 1974 and 1981) and Republican Bill McInturff, had an even closer result, with Republicans found more to blame than Democrats by a margin of 23% to 21%.
Voters’ predictions of how they will respond to an event are not always reliable. For that reason I have tended to discount polls that say far more will blame Republicans than Obama for going over the fiscal cliff. Another reason is that individuals are usually more popular than groups, especially Congress. Presidents almost always are more popular than “Republicans in Congress” or “Democrats in Congress.” The inclusion in the Hart/McInturff question of the “equally to blame” option and the fact that a solid majority embrace it suggest to me that going over the fiscal cliff may be more dangerous to Obama than has generally been assumed. Voters focus more on the president than they do on congressional leaders. It seems likely to me that both Obama and congressional leaders would suffer in public opinion if we go off the cliff. That’s what happened after the failure of the grand bargain talks in summer 2011.
What if House Republicans adopt what Republican analyst and former budget negotiator Keith Hennessey calls Option C? That option would be to bring to the floor S. 3412, a bill passed by the Senate last fall with only Democratic votes that extends for a year the Bush tax cuts, including the capital gains cut, on those with incomes below $250,000, allowing the high tax rates to go back to 36% and 39.6% but putting the capital gains rate on high earners at 20%; it also includes preservation of the marriage penalty relief, child care tax credit an education tax relief plus (a necessity for high-tax-state Democrats) an Alternative Minimum Tax patch. In Hennessey’s scenario enough House Republicans would join almost all House Democrats to pass S. 3412. Obama would have little choice but to sign the bill, which would spare us many of the consequences of going off the fiscal cliff. But it would also keep alive the tax, spending and entitlement issues for another year, a year in which action may be forced by the need to raise the debt limit. Whether that would turn out to be in Obama’s advantage is a subject for another day.