Putting the ‘sabotage’ question to the public

We’ve been exploring for nearly a year the “sabotage” question: are Republicans trying to hurt the nation’s economy on purpose, simply to undermine the Obama presidency?

Over the last few months, the charge has become more common and more mainstream, with the question being raised by leading officials in President Obama’s re-election team, Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, and a growing number of pundits and political observers.

Pollsters, however, have shied away from the question — until very recently. Today, a new survey from Public Policy Polling, commissioned by Daily Kos and SEIU, put the question to respondents nationwide.

“Q: Do you think the Republicans are intentionally stalling efforts to jumpstart the economy to insure that Barack Obama is not reelected or not?”

Yes: 50%
No: 41%
Unsure: 10%

This comes on the heels on a very similar poll conducted solely in Florida, which produced nearly identical responses. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released yesterday also found 50% of Americans nationwide agree with the statement that 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.”

The polls come at the same time as a New York Times editorial that stated, simply as an obvious fact, that congressional Republicans are “committed to doing nothing” to improve the economy “in the hopes that the faltering economy will cost President Obama his job in 2012.”

Taken together, this is a rather striking shift.. We’re talking about the American mainstream accepting the idea that a major political party, for the first time since the Civil War, actively trying to undermine the strength of the United States in a time of economic crisis. At a fundamental level, that is, or at least should be, an incredible scandal. As Brian Beutler put it, “[I]f the notion that elected Republicans are blocking economic recovery for political gain becomes a mainstream proposition, they’ve got big trouble.”

A lot will depend on how Americans come to think of this. At this point, as we discussed yesterday, beliefs about “sabotage” do not necessarily translate into a political boost for the White House. The degree of national cynicism is so intense, many Americans may assume Republicans are sabotaging the national economy, but take their frustrations out on President Obama anyway.

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.

That said, it’s also easy to imagine the sabotage question undermining Republican support in 2012, even if it’s not automatic. Are Americans prepared to reward a party that cares more about power and politics than the nation’s well being? The more Democrats push the question into the public bloodstream, and get voters thinking about the impact of unprecedented GOP tactics, the better it will be for Dems’ electoral efforts.