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Why don’t more voters care about the debt ceiling?

Even with a possible debt ceiling deal, the US has come perilously close to a default. No one seems to care.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) talks to reporters outside his office at the Capitol following a meeting with President Joe Biden on May 22, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Christian Paz is a senior politics reporter at Vox, where he covers the Democratic Party. He joined Vox in 2022 after reporting on national and international politics for the Atlantic’s politics, global, and ideas teams, including the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election.

Though there are reports that an agreement is near, a lot could go wrong if congressional Republicans and the White House are unable to work out a deal to raise the debt ceiling by late next week. At some point in the next few weeks, checks from the federal government would stop going out since the country wouldn’t be able to pay its bills. Interest rates would rise, the stock market would fall, and the country would likely enter a recession potentially resulting in millions of job losses.

But do most Americans know this? And who would they blame for the economic calamity that would ensue?

The answer to the first question is easy: Most Americans don’t seem to view the debt ceiling threat as that big of a deal, or they don’t seem to view a potential default on debt as a crisis. The second question is more complicated and will depend on just how badly the economy craters if a deal isn’t reached in the next week.

The chaos could start as early as June: A little more than a week remains until we hit the June 5 “X-date,” when the Treasury Department has said the US would begin to be unable to pay its debts and could have to prioritize which bills go unpaid. The debt ceiling is the legal limit on how much the US can borrow in order to pay for a large portion of government spending. The US, in fact, hit the debt ceiling in January; The Treasury is using “extraordinary measures” to keep the government afloat, but those will soon be exhausted as well.

Congressional Republicans and the White House remain in negotiations. Though members of Congress have already left the capital for their Memorial Day weekend break, recent reporting suggests that a deal might be in sight — but the most conservative members of the House don’t seem to like some of the details. (House Democrats, for their part, also don’t seem thrilled.)

Most public polling shows a core challenge for Biden and the Democrats: The majority of Americans don’t seem to understand the technical details of the debt ceiling, or what a default would mean. Many voters view the future of the debt limit as contingent on some kind of spending cuts, and many seem willing to consider a default if Congress does not cut some spending.

That voters see a connection between spending cuts and the debt ceiling is already a huge win for Republicans — the White House and House Democratic leadership’s opening position had always been to pass a “clean” debt ceiling increase, keeping debates over budgets and spending separate. Democrats were partially counting on Republicans never getting on the same page with their list of demands; but since House Republicans passed their own debt ceiling bill last month, Biden and Democrats have had to engage on spending cut negotiations.

Now that Biden and Democrats are negotiating, a default would likely not be viewed as the fault exclusively of Republicans’ demands: Most recent polls show nearly even splits in blame for both parties. A Marist poll from last week, for example, shows 45 percent of Americans would blame Republicans, 43 percent would blame Biden, and 7 percent would blame both.

These polls also show a related problem for Biden and Democrats — Americans might not get the severity of a default.

CNN’s most recent polling from last week, for example, shows that only 26 percent of Americans see a default as a “crisis.” That same poll found that only 24 percent of Americans think Congress should raise the debt ceiling no matter what — while 60 percent of Americans want to see spending cuts before Congress raises the debt ceiling. A recent Economist/YouGov poll shows something similar: Half of Americans see a default as either a minor or major problem, but not a full-blown crisis.

In other words, as it stands, Americans don’t seem to understand that the stability of the global economy and the imperative for America to avoid a recession are different issues from the political debates over the government’s budgeting and spending priorities.

House Republicans’ cuts-or-default strategy includes calls for more than $4 trillion in reductions to government spending. Republicans want to claw back unspent Covid relief money, rescind money meant to modernize the IRS, cancel student loan debt relief, and implement work requirements for certain food stamp and Medicaid recipients — which could leave millions without health insurance.

This confusion — and general voter apathy on the issue — has complicated Democratic groups’ efforts to try to keep pressure on House Republicans and avoid blame shifting onto Democrats and the White House for the political brinkmanship happening in DC.

“We’re talking about real draconian cuts to benefits that people in my rural community depend on,” Santos Garcia, the mayor of Madera, in California’s agricultural breadbasket, told me recently during a rally organized by the anti-MAGA Republican group Courage for America. “That’s why I’m trying to get the word out.”

Garcia told me that his constituents have a hard time understanding the stakes of a default, and of the cuts that Republicans are trying to implement, because a lot of news coverage tends to cover these negotiations as standard political debate that happens on Capitol Hill. Regular folks, he said, don’t understand the severity of these deliberations until you start to talk to them about the things that might be lost if the country defaults — and also if Republicans’ proposed spending cuts to social programs like Pell Grants for low-income college students.

“So much of the news and the media don’t talk to people in a way that they’ll understand. These issues get so partisan, and people tune them out on that part,” Garcia said. When he gets back to the Central Valley, currently represented by Republican Rep. John Duarte, he said he’s going to tell his constituents “to pick up the phone and talk to their congressman about passing a bipartisan bill to eliminate any notion of a default or these drastic cuts. We need to pay our bills, so that the federal government does not default.”

Maryam Idowu, one of Garcia’s constituents who joined him in DC for the rally, echoed some of that theory for how “real America” is feeling: “Some people are in tune to [the threat of default] but it just kind of depends on ‘how much is something going to affect me?’ And some people — they don’t think they’re going to be affected.”

That distance from DC deliberations has also complicated outreach efforts for some of Courage for America’s partners, including influencers like Carlos Eduardo Espina, a law student from College Station, Texas and a Spanish-language creator. He posts frequent news updates about immigration along with his own analysis, but has noticed a difference in how his 6 million TikTok followers and 360,000 Instagram followers engage with his posts about the debt ceiling — they simply don’t understand the issue. “Even for myself, it’s a very complex issue and that’s even with me completely understanding English,” he said. “I think that the closer it gets to the actual deadline to find a solution, we’ll start getting a lot more interest.”

And as voters get more informed and feel the effects of a default if it happens, it’s likely that they’ll want to assign blame to everyone in DC — but they’ll likely especially blame Joe Biden. The president doesn’t have the same good will Democrats had the last time a debt limit default nearly happened in 2011, or was threatened in 2013. A Fox News poll from this month shows that more Americans are willing to blame Biden (47 percent) for a default than were willing to blame President Barack Obama in 2011 (32 percent). In fact, Biden seems to be the focus of more blame than Obama ever was in 2011 or 2013, according to an analysis by the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake.

There are a few possible explanations for this difference. While Americans were generally sour about the economy during the 2011 and 2013 debt ceiling fights, the country was recovering from the Great Recession, the economy felt like it was improving, and inflation was low.

In 2023, voters in both parties are sour about the economy. And even if unemployment is historically very low, inflation remains high and Americans mostly blame Biden and Democrats for the economy. Forty-one percent of Americans say their views on the economy align closer to Republicans, compared to 29 percent who align with Democrats, according to a March CNN poll. Neither party really benefited from the debt ceiling fights of the last decade — but Republicans stand to gain a lot politically if the economy unravels under an unpopular Democratic president right before an election year.

Brookings Institution fellow William Galston is one outspoken proponent of this theory. There’s pretty good evidence the budget disputes that result in government shutdowns tend to hurt Republicans politically, but the same isn’t true of defaults, since the country has never defaulted. It did come close in 2011, when the US’s credit rating was downgraded and the country came within 72 hours of defaulting.

“The actual economic effects of a government shutdown are almost nil on the public — but no one thinks that would be true about a debt ceiling breach,” Galston told me. “I’m convinced that, were a debt ceiling breach to have measurably negative consequences on the American public, President Biden would be negatively judged.”

During the 2022 midterms, Biden and congressional Democrats were largely able to resist one of the basic rules of politics: that American voters punish the party in power for negative economic conditions. Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate, won key governors races, and minimized Republican gains in the House. But in presidential elections, voters hold presidents responsible for the economy. “Since the New Deal, whether rightly or wrongly, presidents have been held principally liable for the state of the economy,” Galston said. “If we do tip over, I don’t think people are going to like it at all.”

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