Government Shutdown May Not Be That Politically Risky, History Suggests

More Americans Hold Obama Responsible Than They Did Clinton for a Shutdown


The first partial shutdown of the federal government in 17 years took effect today, because President Obama and partisans in Congress failed to agree on a budget. Recent polls have suggested that Republicans in Congress will be blamed for the shutdown more than the President by a margin of 46 to 36 percent respectively. However, Gallup's historical data suggests that neither Congressional Republicans nor President Obama will experience sustained public backlash in the wake of the shutdown.

While Clinton's approval did take a 10-point hit between November 1995 and January 1996, three months later it bounced back to 52 percent where it had been before the shutdown. Overall U.S. satisfaction also declined during the shutdown from roughly a third to a quarter, but also returned to its previous level in just a few months.

Interestingly, Gingrich's favorability increased six points during the shutdown but then declined back to its previous low rating of roughly 25 percent.  In addition, the most important issue went from crime (25 percent) to the federal budget (28 percent) back to crime (25 percent). 

More Americans Hold Obama Responsible Than Clinton for a Shutdown

The Pew Research Center finds more Americans would place blame on President Obama for a government shutdown than they did President Clinton in 1995. Eighteen years ago, 46 percent of Americans said Republicans in Congress were more to blame for a government shutdown compared to 27 percent who placed blame on President Clinton. However today, 36 percent of Americans say President Obama is more to blame if an agreement is not reached to prevent a shutdown, nine points higher than Clinton.

While more Americans hold Obama responsible for a shutdown than they did Clinton, more still blame Republicans. Pew found near parity with 39 percent primarily blaming Republicans and 36 primarily blaming the Obama administration, while 17 percent volunteered they blamed both. Although the CNN poll taken a few days after Pew found a slightly wider margin with 36 percent blaming Obama and 46 percent blaming Republicans.

Public Opposes Using Shutdown as Negotiating Tactic

Some may find it perplexing that the public opposes the high level of government spending and is unfavorable toward the health care law, but then opposes the use of a shutdown to negotiate reforms.

Reason-Rupe recently found that 76 percent think the government spends too much money, that the government on average wastes 60 cents of every dollar it spends, and that 54 percent want this year's federal budget to spend less than last year's. Across different survey question wordings, Americans have an unfavorable opinion of the new health care law too. A Quinnipiac poll finds that 47 percent oppose "the health care law passed by Barack Obama and Congress in 2010" while 45 percent support. The CNN poll finds that 57 percent oppose a bill that became law in 2010 "that makes major changes to the country's health care system," while 38 percent favor it. The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll in September found 43 percent have an unfavorable view of the law, 39 percent have a favorable view, and 17 percent have no opinion. (Responses vary according to how question wording brings to mind different considerations at the time the question is asked, see Zaller).

While these survey results suggest the public might be on the side of Republicans using budget negotiations to either defund or delay the health care law, or initiate spending cuts, most Americans oppose this negotiating tactic. In fact, a CBS/NYTimes poll found 80 percent find it unacceptable for the "President or members of Congress to threaten a government shutdown during their budget negotiations in order to achieve their goals."

Even specifically mentioning cutting off funding for the health care law as justification for a shutdown fails to garner majority support. For instance, Quinnipiac found 58 percent oppose "Congress cutting off funding of the health care law as away to stop it from being put into place." Although 68 percent of Republicans support the strategy, 58 percent of independents, and majorities of men, women, income and age groups oppose it. The NBC/WSJ poll offered respondents the option not to offer an opinion, and even then 44 percent opposed "totally eliminating federal funding for the new health care law" and 38 percent favored. However, support for eliminating funding for the new health care law dropped to 19 percent if it resulted in a government shutdown and default.

In general, the public opposes the government shutdown, with 68 percent who say it's a "bad thing" for the country while 27 percent think it's a good thing. The CNN poll found only 34 percent favor "preventing major provisions of the new health care law from taking effect by cutting the funds needed to implement them." Instead, 60 percent want Congress to compromise on a budget agreement. This comports with a Reason-Rupe finding that 67 percent would rather members of Congress "work together and compromise more" even if the respondent does not like the resulting laws. Only 28 percent favored gridlock to prevent Congress from passing suboptimal laws.