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Poll: 44 percent of Americans oppose raising debt ceiling

Americans overwhelmingly do not think Congress should raise the nation’s debt limit as President Barack Obama and Congress prepare once again to wage battle over the issue, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

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By a 44-22 percent margin, Americans oppose raising the debt ceiling, which again puts the president in the difficult position of needing to make the case for an unpopular policy with a deadline quickly approaching.

The poll results come as the U.S. Treasury Department says the country will reach its debt limit by mid-October. The Bipartisan Policy Center estimates the limit will be reached by Oct. 18, and the U.S. could default by Nov. 5.

Read the full poll here (.pdf)

“People’s first instinct is how fed up they are with Washington and spending,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the poll with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart. “This is a very difficult issue in terms of public opinion.”

Obama is trying to avoid a repeat of the 2011 debt-limit fight, led by conservative Tea Party members of the U.S. House, which ultimately resulted in the U.S.’s credit rating being downgraded. The episode not only hurt the president but all parties involved, including House Republicans, who took much of the blame for the downgrade.

But the stage is set for another round of conflict in Washington. House Republicans – fueled by Tea Party supporters – are demanding spending cuts to accompany any debt-ceiling hike. And President Obama has said he will not negotiate when asking Congress to raise the debt limit for money it has already spent.

Raising the debt ceiling is a routine but also unpopular procedure that fires up the political opposition. Obama, when he served in the U.S. Senate, voted against it in 2006 and even called it “a sign of leadership failure.”

But despite such rhetoric, Congress always raised it without a hitch to avoid debt default – until 2011, that is.

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Despite the public’s opposition to raising the debt ceiling, McInturff warns that Republicans don’t have “free rein.”

As was the case in 2011, if the nation’s credit score is downgraded again because of political uncertainty, Wall Street suffers or, even worse, the country defaults on its debt, all parties will be blamed.

McInturff also points out that the president has the capability to frame a public debate in ways that can reshape attitudes about an issue.

Indeed, the June 2011 NBC/WSJ poll showed 39 percent opposing raising the debt ceiling, versus 28 percent who supported it. But a month later – after the issue received more attention – those numbers flipped: 38 percent favored raising it, while 31 percent opposed it.