The growing acceptance of the ‘sabotage’ question

The New York Times editorial board had a piece today on the importance of unemployment benefits, and made an observation in passing that stood out for me.

“Tragically,” the editorial said, “the more entrenched the jobs shortage becomes, the more paralyzed Congress becomes, with Republicans committed to doing nothing in the hopes that the faltering economy will cost President Obama his job in 2012.”

The point was made in passing, but it’s nevertheless striking. As far as the editorial board of the nation’s most important newspaper is concerned, it’s simply accepted as fact that congressional Republicans want to hold back the economy, on purpose, to undermine the Obama presidency.

Does the American public accept this as easily? Greg Sargent flagged the results of a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, that asked a related question.

“Which of the following statements comes closest to your point of view? Statement A: (President Obama is making a good faith effort to deal with the country’s economic problems, but the Republicans in Congress are playing politics by blocking his proposals and programs.) Or Statement B: (President Obama has not provided leadership on the economy, and he is just blaming the Republicans in Congress as an excuse for not doing his job.)”

Obama making a good effort: 50%

Obama has not provided leadership: 44%

This comes less than a week after a poll in Florida found that 49% of voters statewide believe congressional Republicans “are intentionally hindering efforts to boost the economy so that President Barack Obama will not be reelected.” The WaPo/ABC poll is, as best as I can tell, the first national poll to consider the same issue.

To be sure, the wording of this new poll isn’t ideal, and is far less direct than the poll conducted in Florida. But the takeaway is still pretty clear: half the country is inclined to believe GOP officials are killing efforts to boost the economy for purely political reasons.

Though in theory, it should, this won’t necessarily give President Obama a boost. The degree of national cynicism is so intense, many Americans may simply assume Republicans are sabotaging the national economy, but take their frustrations out on the president anyway. As Greg noted, “The number who see Obama as a strong leader is now upside down (48-51), suggesting yet again that even if Americans understand that Republicans are deliberately blocking Obama’s policies, they may conclude that his failure to get around them just shows he’s weak or ineffectual.”

Voters’ understanding of the political process is severely limited, and many Americans likely fail to appreciate the role Congress must play in policymaking. There are no doubt plenty of voters thinking, “Sure, Republicans are sabotaging the economy, but why can’t Obama just go around them?” unaware of the fact that, on a grand scale, this isn’t an option.

It’s easy to imagine the sabotage question undermining Republican support in 2012, but it’s clearly not automatic. The more Democrats push the question into the public bloodstream, and get voters thinking about the impact of GOP tactics, the better it will be for Dems’ electoral efforts.