Public Disconnect: What the Government Shutdown Signifies for the Future

Michael Orion Powell I Politics & Government I Commentary I October 28th, 2013

The government shutdown is over - the House and Senate voted to restore the government along with Barack Obama' approval. All seems to be back to normal, or as normal as things can be in this chaotic country.

As has been the trend, the episode ended up working in favor of Obama and the Democratic Party in general. Polls showed only single digits favoring a shutdown to stop Obamacare, and Obama and his administration ended up looking friendly, and even populist, in the face of Tea Party irrationality. During the shutdown, Joe Biden was pictured bringing muffins to government workers furloughed, while President Obama firmly lectured his opposition. "(If) you don't like a particular policy or a particular president, then argue for your position. Go out there and win an election. Push to change it," Obama said. "But don't break it. Don't break what our predecessors spent over two centuries building. That's not being faithful to what this country's about."

What can we learn? Perhaps the episode wasn't as extreme an event as we thought it was during its occurrence. Only 18% of the government was shut down and critical social programs like Social Security, Medicaid, etc. were still delivered. The shutdown was limited to National Parks, NASA, Amtrak, loans for farmers, and various government programs that, while important and employing a lot of people, aren't considered critical.

Nevertheless, the shutdown lasted two weeks. Many of the shutdowns in the 1990s during the Clinton administration were relatively insignificant and happened over the course of a single weekend. This was different. This shutdown came on the heels of a very deep recession, of which many are still recovering from. As a result, more people are dependent on the state either for employment - with programs like Amtrak or the National Parks - or for public assistance, than were during the 1990s. The timing and length of this latest halt reflects a deep insensitivity to what people are still going through, mostly on the part of the Republican Party, which didn't hesitate to pull the plug during a time when many folks are struggling to stay afloat in a fragile economic environment.

And that insensitivity is not unobserved by normal people. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, whose opposition to Obamacare brought the shutdown about in the first place, was immediately lambasted by the Houston Chronicle, which publicly regretting their endorsement of him. One article in The Atlantic literally opened October 9 with the headline: "No Party in Gallup's History Has Been Less Popular than the GOP Is Now." [1] In fact, favorability for the party is at about 28%, lower than even during the Clinton impeachment or after Bush's second term.

The Republicans did not make their case, or any case, well. During the shutdown, Republican lawmaker Kevin Cramer refused to give up his pay, boasting that he was still working and earning money even if many segments of the government had been shut down. While Cramer may in fact have been working, his defensive posture reflected an inwardness, selfishness, and lack of empathy with many of the people who were unable to earn their living during the shutdown. The fallout of the shutdown didn't even seem to penetrate Ted Cruz himself - who, despite everything, said he wouldn't rule out another government shutdown. (While listening to talk radio, it became apparent that many conservatives like Michael Medved believe the Republican Party would have succeeded if the fight had been over the debt ceiling instead of over Obamacare.)

The manner of approaching the public affairs of the public itself could not be further apart between congressional Republicans and the government workers who lost work during the shutdown. In one Associated Press article, Greg Bettwy, the head of the Smithsonian Institute's Human Resources department, said, "Just to be able to get back to serving the public is so important" - the sort of public servant talk that you would hope and expect elected officials to say, and not just museum spokesmen.[2]

The writing was on the wall - Republicans were losing elections and finding themselves on the defense with most major issues. Democrats have been looking to take back Congress again, and they very well might. Even the most promising Republican possibilities for president, such as Rand Paul, have so much baggage that it would be very easy for a Democratic opponent to chew through them like red meat. In Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, he remarked that many people seemed to project their hopes on to him - and his presence as a sort of personal enigma and mirrored reflection of our own hopes and fears helped him attain the highest office in the world's most powerful country. In the current scheme of things, and following a disastrous hostage-like approach to the shutdown, it's difficult to imagine any major Republican candidate portraying such hope.

As the political residue from the shutdown disperses, we are able to better gauge the potential consequences. Clearly, it's not pretty for the Republicans. Six days after the shutdown ended, the Washington Post reported the following:[3]

"The survey highlights just how badly the GOP hard-liners and the leaders who went along with them misjudged the public mood. In the aftermath, eight in 10 Americans say they disapprove of the shutdown. Two in three Republicans or independents who lean Republican share a negative view of the impasse. And even a majority of those who support the Tea Party movement disapprove. "

The Washington Post also noted that "almost four in 10 Americans have a strongly unfavorable view of the GOP." Opinion of government as a whole remains low, and Obama's approval ratings, while vastly greater than Republicans, is only at 44%, [4] nowhere near the sky-high approval that Bill Clinton enjoyed during and after the Republicans assaulted his presidency in the late 1990s.

Still, despite this major miscalculation by the GOP, and no matter his own attractive personal and political traits, Barack Obama is not a resoundingly popular president. There should be an opening for someone, given his mixed popularity; however, he still maintains leverage over the alternatives. And while he safely secured re-election, a majority of Americans have told pollsters that they think his foreign policy is the same or worse than Bush's was. Likewise, a majority say they disapprove of his handling of the economy. Obama got elected because the American people clearly wanted change - his being the first African American president symbolized change in itself while "change," along with "hope," was a key phrase throughout his presidential campaign.

What would be real change? What sort of policies would the American people want? They seem largely dissatisfied with all of the options - Bill Clinton may be the last major American leader that enjoyed serious popularity. Much of Obama's unpopularity seems to be tied to his inability to affect the change that was promised on the campaign trail, as many of his policies are retreads of policies that go back decades. It's unclear that there really are other options. We may just be stuck in this mess for good.


[1] Bump, Philip. "No Party in Gallup's History Has Been Less Popular Than the GOP Is Now."The Atlantic Wire. The Atlantic, 9 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[2] Associated Press. "SHUTDOWN ENDS: Federal Employees Return to Work, National Parks and Monuments Reopen after 16 Days." NY Daily News. New York Daily News, 17 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[3] Balz, Dan, and Scott Clement. "Poll: Major Damage to GOP after Shutdown, and Broad Dissatisfaction with Government." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 22 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[4] Jones, Jeffrey M. "Obama's Job Approval Declines to 44.5% in 19th Quarter." Obama's Job Approval Declines to 44.5% in 19th Quarter. Gallup Politics, 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.