September 30, 2013

The last government shutdown and now: a different environment

FT_Shutdown_2As the government faces its first shutdown since 1995-1996, the standoff between the Obama administration and Republicans over the federal budget is occurring in a different public opinion environment than when President Bill Clinton faced off with the GOP-controlled Congress.

The shutdown of the federal government in ’95-’96 took the public by surprise. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll taken just weeks before the government suspended all non-essential services on Nov. 14 found that nearly eight-in-ten (79%) thought an agreement would be reached to avoid a shutdown, just 13% thought the two sides would not reach an agreement.

Now, after the intensely-partisan standoffs of recent years, Pew Research Center polling has found a very different public mood regarding the current impasse: 46% say a budget agreement between Obama and Republicans will be reached before the deadline, while about as many (45%) say an agreement will not be reached.

(See our previous piece comparing budget standoffs then and now: Lessons from the last government shutdown)

From the outset in 1995, the public saw Republicans as more responsible for the shutdown than Clinton. A November ABC News/Washington Post survey found 49% said Republicans in Congress were mainly responsible for standing in the way of an agreement to end the shutdown, just 34% blamed Clinton, and 13% volunteered that both were responsible. Republicans would consistently take more blame than Clinton for the shutdown over the entire course of events (the government first closed from Nov. 14-19 and then again from Dec. 16-Jan.6).

In our latest poll, the public divides blame over a possible shutdown: about as may say the Obama administration would be to blame for failing to avoid a shutdown (36%) as Republicans (39%).

FT_Shutdown_1In addition to taking more blame for the 1995-1996 shutdown, Republicans failed to convince the public that they were standing on principal rather than using the shutdown for political gain.

A December 1995 Kaiser/Harvard/Washington Post poll found that by a 57%-36% margin Clinton was seen as standing up for the priorities he believed in rather than trying to gain political advantage through the crisis. By contrast, Republicans in Congress were seen as strategic rather than principled by a 52%-38% margin.

FT_Shutdown_3Furthermore, the public flatly rejected using a shutdown to negotiate the budget. An ABC News/Washington Post poll from Jan. 1996 found that 72% agreed with Clinton that the shutdown should not be used as a tool in budget negotiations, just 24% agreed with some Republicans that the shutdown should be used to pressure Clinton into agreeing to balance the budget in seven years.

A recent CBS News/New York Times poll finds a similar current of opinion in today’s debate: fully 80% say that threatening a government shutdown during the budget debates is not an acceptable way to negotiate.

The ’95-’96 government shutdown did little to change political attitudes on a major issue at the center of the budget debate – the GOP push to limit the growth of Medicare. Prior to the shutdown, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 49% said Clinton had the better approach on Medicare, 24% said Republicans in Congress.  Roughly three months later – and just a week after the shutdown ended – opinion was nearly identical (51% Clinton, 24% Republicans in Congress).

In addition, there was strong support for only limited cuts to Medicare in the context of the budget debate. A CNN/USA Today survey from mid-January of 1996 found that 65% preferred smaller cuts to Medicare and a smaller tax cut to larger cuts to Medicare and a larger tax cut as the best proposal to balance the federal budget.

President Obama faces a different set of circumstances today.  Pew Research polling finds that Obamacare is unpopular generally; however, the public opposes a proposal to cut off funding for the health care law as part of any budget agreement. In addition, the GOP has drawn even with the Democrats as the party seen as able to better deal with the issue of health care.

Topics: U.S. Political Parties, Political Attitudes and Values, Federal Government, Government Spending and the Deficit

  1. Photo of Alec Tyson

    is a senior researcher focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Dasha4 years ago

    Government shutdown is ruining everyone’s life. Over here in Germany where we are serving the air force they decide to shutdown AFN. Do you know how many people deployed do not get TV. They are working the butts off to protect us while congress and senate have a cat fight. Come on if you really care for america you would listen to your people instead of the selfish desires you have of not letting the other side win. You have to make a compromise to help solve the problem. A compromise is were both sides lose something. What kind of example is congress showing the young adults of the nation. To fight when you don’t get what you want. Everyone is watching your every move. If you don’t want the government to shutdown again in Americas future then you need to sacrifice something. I pray that you guys will realize that ( Congress and Senate)

  2. Larry4 years ago

    Let us start talking about something else, Obama Care is like beating a dead horse. What about the poor disturbed woman who may have accidently run into a baracade, left the scene of an accident, violated a book full of traffic violations, got lost and ran into several other items placed in her way and was killed by the police as a suspected terrorist?

  3. Hi4 years ago

    I believe in Santa.

  4. Gideon A.4 years ago

    There is a right time and a right way to do everything, but we know so little! None of us knows what is going to happen, and there is no one to tell. God have mercy on our dear nation; IN HIM WE TRUST.

  5. Ken in LV4 years ago

    As a former military officer and astute student of the Constitution, I see the role of Congress as being the stewards of our national trust. It is the duty of the Military to defend the country. It is the duty of Police and Fire services to protect the country. It is the duty of Congress to ensure the continuity of government. To allow a Government shutdown amounts to dereliction of duty. A military member who abandons his post in the face of the enemy faces summary execution. A Congressman still gets his pay, even while millions of American citizens are not getting the services they have paid for and depend on. I call upon all Americans to make it known to the Tea-Party Republicans who have shut down our Government, that We, The People, demand they do their job. Further that We The People start impeachment proceedings against those in Congress who have abandoned their duty in the name of partisan politics. Remember that it is the Republicans who have now shut our Government down three times, and ensure they don’t have a chance to do it in the future by recalling or impeaching them now and never electing them in the future!

    1. Oscar4 years ago

      Yeah vote all the republicans out

    2. Valerie Fitzgerald4 years ago

      Yes, Ken. I believe that Congress has violated its commitment to this country. Remember that not all Republicans go along with this shutdown. One of them was telling me: “It’s like when we don’t get our own way, we have a temper tantrum. Only we don’t kick our heels on the floor – we’re kicking the American People. This is not going to end well for us as a party.” This guy is a lifelong Republican out of TX.

      I naturally suggested to him that the party should get rid of the extremists. “HOW?” he asked. Here’s how: The Republicans should FIRE the teabaggers. Then make recess appointment of real Republicans – those are bad enough but these people aren’t even legitimate. Firing the baggers is essential because they are trying to undo a law of the land that the US Supreme Court has ratified. This has to be done quickly.

      I also believe that the healthcare sites are being DELIBERATELY crashed. That should absolutely be looked into. When Republicans know that they cannot get their way, they’ve often turned to crime, counting on public apathy, to get what they want. And what they want, is almost always, bad for the American People. Ken, I’d like to see them all impeached. That’d teach Republicans not to allow members of their party to defy the will of the people, the US Supreme Court, and the Law of the Land – Obamacare. I (like yourself), want Republicans to pay dearly for everything they’ve done to this country. NO HOLDS BARRED – if their leaders won’t get rid of everyone who’s involved in this government shutdown – then the army should move in, charge them with Treason, and take them away. Kind of like what Bush did to thousands of Americans who didn’t agree with him making war with Iraq. Remember rendition? That’d be cool, too.

  6. Marie4 years ago

    If folks really dislike RomneyCare, then why not let it take effect and wreck as anticipated. Everyone will see it as a mistake, the Democrats will be voted out of office and Republicans will be in control and repeal it. You know why Republicans don’t want to do that, because they are afraid that it won’t be the failure they anticipate and they don’t want to see Obama/Democrats get the credit for RomneyCare (original plan started by the Heritage Foundation). Catch a clue people or don’t you know that this is POLITICS!!

    1. Shayne O4 years ago

      Hah “Romneycare”. I’ve also heard the term “Reagan care” as the current Affordable health care act is pretty much identical to a proposal from Reagan back in the day (The democrats wanted a proper UHC, if I remember right

      I’m fascinated that so many people are blaming the democrats, considering that most of the ringleaders of the shutdown where actually campaigning to do this right before the election even started. Without even knowing the details of the budget they had already decided they where going to block it either way. I guess politics is a strange game.

      I suspect its time America started looking at building in some sort of circut breaker in for these sorts of situation.

    2. Chey Carner4 years ago

      Maybe the republicans being back in power is not the answer. It’s time America started moving in a new direction, and with it, support another party all together. The libertarians are waiting for their chance, both democrats and republicans have proved unsuccessful why not take a chance and let a third party give it a shot?

    3. Valerie Fitzgerald4 years ago

      Marle? Hmmm. Thought that the original plan was started by Ted Kennedy, former Senator from Mass, now (sadly) deceased. You say the Heritage Foundation started the Universal healthcare that Massachusetts now enjoys? Well at least there’s something good that Republicans have done. That’s enough to declare a National holiday, LOL!

  7. Tom Thomas4 years ago

    We are changing our governing by the majority to governing by the gerrymandered minority. We are in a significant crisis that is covered up by short term political fights.

    1. Valerie Fitzgerald4 years ago

      Exactly right, Tom. Except when you say “we are changing our form of government to a gerrymandered minority” I have one question, and one only:

      Why, when the Democrats were in power, did WE not gerrymander OUR districts? The true power lies in the gerrymander, because the electoral college counts DISTRICT TOTALS – not individual totals! You move your map so that it includes a majority of Dems in any one district. The maps look weird – but it doesn’t matter how they look, what matters is the DISTRICT TOTAL. I saw one Republican map in Wisconsin, threading around and around one district like a concentric circle so although there were a majority of Democrats in the district, there was also a majority of Republicans – enough to overwhelm the actual Democrat majority. Add to that, that ALL REPUBLICANS VOTE – that, plus their GERRYMANDERS, grab power when they’re by no means entitled to it.

      This is all done at the District level, in each state. The Republicans work damn hard to win. We dems, barely go to the polls. WE’D rather go to a damn PICNIC!

  8. Mark Sumile4 years ago

    This is a good comparison of public perceptions during the last shutdown and this one, but it doesn’t really get into the actual reasons. Is there another study comparing, for example, money spent on advertising and time spent marketing the specific messages by both parties then & now?

  9. Kim4 years ago

    Your statement that “Obamacare is unpopular” is misleading. As you must know, the actual contents get majority approval. It’s the ignorance that is the issue — as the Pew survey you cite illustrates quite well! Also, a portion of the disapproval (in surveys that break it out) is from the left — people who prefer single payer. Now, if these people were asked if they preferred the ACA to nothing, they would approve. You need at least another line in this piece to clarify these issues. As is, your are misleading your readers.

    1. brandon4 years ago

      Obamacare is un-popular with every body that’s not milking the system. Get off the wagon and help push the wagon.

      1. Numbers!4 years ago

        The fact that “Obamacare” gets roughly 15% less polling support than “the Affordable Care Act” tells you a lot about the public’s general understanding. And especially, the motivation behind a sizable slice of the opposition.

        1. Numbers always!4 years ago

          Exactly right. The country’s dislike of Obamacare is the result of political bullying. How many hours a day do the networks blast out that people don’t like Obamacare. Yeah, the so-called dislike is based entirely on propoganda.

        2. Valerie Fitzgerald4 years ago

          You don’t mean the ‘prejudiced pig’ segment of the population, do you, Numbers! ? Nor do you, Numbers always! ? Of COURSE not.

          Those parts of the population should read their Constitution. It’s free – there for the asking, from their Congress person.

      2. Shayne O4 years ago

        Brandon, I come from a country with a split private/public system like is being proposed here, Australia (medicare for the poor, and private health for the not poor). Its *lowered* healthcare costs to the government because its making sure people get cheaper healthcare BEFORE their health problems turn into expensive emergency treatment. Research consistently shows UHC is actually cheaper still.

        People are being milked right now, but its not the poor doing the milking.