Host Michele Norris talks with Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. The latest numbers from Pew suggest the public is pretty evenly divided on who they would blame for a government shutdown — if one were to occur: 36 percent say they would blame Republicans, and 35 percent say they would blame President Obama. The center also polled about a thousand people about the issues involved in the budget showdown in Wisconsin over the past week. The poll finds that a plurality — 42-percent — sides more with the public employee unions, while 31 percent say they side with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Walker has proposed a bill to strip most public employee unions of their bargaining rights.
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MICHELE NORRIS, host:
If Republicans and Democrats fail to compromise and the government eventually shuts down, Americans appear evenly divided over who they would blame. That's according to the latest poll numbers from the Pew Research Center. Pew also asked Americans who they side with in the ongoing dispute in Wisconsin between public employee unions and Republican Governor Scott Walker - more on that in just a moment.
But first, to those government shutdown numbers. Andrew Kohut is here with me to talk about this. He's the president of Pew.
And welcome back, Andy.
Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): Happy to be here, Michele.
NORRIS: Now, you asked if the federal government shuts down, who would be the most to blame? What did you hear from people?
Mr. KOHUT: We were surprised to find 36 percent saying they would blame the Republicans and 35 percent Obama, just about the same number.
NORRIS: Close numbers there.
Mr. KOHUT: Very close. Surprise because back in 1995 when The Washington Post asked a similar question, 46 percent blamed the Republicans and many fewer, 27 percent, blamed President Clinton. So this is not potentially, if it happens, likely to play out the way 1995 played out.
NORRIS: Cautionary for both parties then.
Mr. KOHUT: Cautionary for both parties. It's interesting why. It's not so much about views about the presidents. President Clinton and President Obama have about the same approval ratings, but what's really different is the way the American public looks at the Republican leadership now versus back then.
Back then, Newt Gingrich was viewed unfavorably by 54 percent of the public, only 25 percent of the public view John Boehner unfavorably, 28 percent favorably. They don't know him. Gingrich was a polarizing figure, and he worried Americans.
NORRIS: Is there anything within those numbers that suggest how they might shift if either party changes their message going into the, you know, the real showdown now in these final hours as they try to work out some sort of compromise?
Mr. KOHUT: The only thing that I would say is if people begin to focus on specific cuts and one side or the other talks about what this means with respect to particular areas of spending, it could hurt the Republican side and help the Democratic side.
NORRIS: You're talking about cuts, not ramifications of the shutdown.
Mr. KOHUT: I'm talking about cuts because when we ask people about cuts to - increases or cuts to federal spending, the number of people who favor cuts to specific programs are minuscule: 11 percent favor federal cuts to education; 16 percent to college financial aid; 12 percent to Medicare, 21 percent to cuts in building infrastructure.
It's the general idea that's popular, but when you raise the specifics, the American public says, whoa, wait a minute. What we were talking about was waste, fraud and abuse, not many of these programs.
NORRIS: Andy, let's move to Wisconsin. You asked Americans across the country about the current dispute over collective bargaining there. And if they side more with the public employee unions or with the governor, a Republican named Scott Walker. The numbers here are much less even, it looks like.
Mr. KOHUT: Well, you have 42 percent saying they side with the public employee unions, and only 31 percent saying they side with the governor. And this comes at a time when labor unions - public opinion about labor unions are at a pretty low ebb - the lowest that we've had in 25 years and 40 years for the Gallup poll who's been doing this longer. But the public is increasingly, especially liberal Democrats, are increasingly rallying to the side of the unions as the dispute goes on.
NORRIS: Now, you mentioned liberal Democrats. Is there support for the unions across the political spectrum?
Mr. KOHUT: It's mostly among Democrats. Fifty-eight percent of Republicans favor decreasing public pensions as a way to balance state budgets. Only 40 percent of Democrats favor this.
NORRIS: And where do the independents fit into that?
Mr. KOHUT: The independents fall right in between - 48 percent. What you see on labor unions, generally, follows that same pattern with the Republicans much more critical and the Democrats less critical. And recently, we've seen liberal Democrats becoming more intensely favorable of labor unions. They're rallying to them.
NORRIS: This sounds like it's a surprise to you?
Mr. KOHUT: Oh, it is a surprise because we've been looking at these labor numbers go so negative. I thought, well, this would be a heck of a time for labor to be challenged, but nonetheless, this poll and other polls show the same thing. The Gallup poll showed 61 percent of people saying they would oppose a collective bargaining rollback in their state. And The New York Times found about 60 percent on a similar question. So it's not just this particular survey.
NORRIS: Andy Kohut, it's always good to talk to you.
Mr. KOHUT: Thank you, Michele.
NORRIS: Andy Kohut is the president of the Pew Research Center. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.