Something happened between March 13 and Sunday to boost congressional Republicans to a three-point advantage after trailing President Barack Obama by a dozen points regarding public trust on handling the economy. That’s a substantial gain and an almost total reversal over a nearly three-month period in the Washington Post/ABC News poll.
Survey experts disagree on what accounted for this major swing in public opinion on a vital aspect of the most important issue on voters’ minds heading toward the 2012 presidential campaign. But it seems reasonable to point to a number of related events that coincided with the period.
First, the unemployment rate dipped slightly earlier this year, as the recovery seemed to gain traction. But after March, it steadily edged up, to 9.1 percent in May. That was the third-straight month of increase since hitting a two-year low. May also marked the 30th consecutive month in which the unemployment rate was above the 8 percent level Obama said it would reach as a result of his $814 billion economic stimulus program. For most of the time since the stimulus package was approved, unemployment has been more than 9 percent.
Second, during the same three-month period, the number of long-term unemployed (people without jobs for 27 months or more) increased by 361,000 to 6.2 percent of the workforce, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In addition, there were 2.2 million people who want to work but have given up on finding jobs, a figure that has remained unchanged most of the year. Together with other data, such as falling housing prices, we thus see a stagnant economy too weak to create new jobs or grow. No wonder 57 percent of respondents in the Post/ABC survey said the economic recovery hasn’t reached them. And among those who do see evidence of a recovery, 81 percent said it’s weak at best.
Congressional Republicans have stuck to their guns and insisted the federal debt limit cannot be increased from its current $14.3 trillion without credible spending cuts. According to House Speaker John Boehner, such cuts must be in the “trillions, not just billions,” and “they should be actual cuts and real reforms to these programs, not broad deficit or debt targets that punt the tough questions to the future.” Not coincidentally, Democrats have steadily retreated in recent weeks into knee-jerk opposition to everything proposed by Republicans, thus becoming the party of “no” at a time of national financial crisis.
In other words, congressional Republicans are making progress in demonstrating to the American people that this time they really are serious about reining in federal spending. But there also is a warning for Republicans in the Post/ABC data. When asked if they would consider voting for somebody besides an incumbent for Congress, 55 percent said yes.
So Republicans have no choice but to deliver those “actual cuts and real reforms.” Anything less will likely be disastrous for everybody concerned.