As President Obama challenged congressional Republicans with his new deficit plan on Monday, voters are rejecting the idea of reducing the nation’s debt through spending cuts alone—but there is no clear-cut enthusiasm for any specific proposal offered by either political party and even less confidence in their ability to get things done.
When asked if the congressional super committee that is charged with recommending at least $1.2 trillion in reductions from the deficit should rely “entirely on spending cuts without any tax increases,” only 28 percent of voters said yes, according to the new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. The cuts-only position is basically the one offered by the Republican leadership in Congress and by the candidates seeking the Republican presidential nomination.
Congressional Democrats and President Obama have offered what they call a “balanced approach” of tax hikes and spending cuts to reduce the federal deficit, and voters overwhelmingly favored such an approach, albeit to varying degrees. When he unveiled his deficit-reduction plan on Monday, the president insisted that tax hikes be a part of any deficit solution. That would seem to be in sync with voters. “Relying about three-fourths on spending cuts and one-fourth on tax increases” was the choice of 20 percent of respondents.
“Relying about equally on spending cuts and tax increases” was slightly more popular, with 26 percent of respondents supporting that approach. A much smaller number of voters—16 percent—favored “relying mostly on tax increases with smaller spending cuts.”
But overall, voters showed slightly more confidence in Republicans in Congress to “make the right decisions about how to reduce the federal deficit.” By 38 percent to 36 percent, voters said they trusted Republicans more than President Obama to make the right decisions about the economy. That’s within the survey’s margin of error.
The poll showed a significant decline in trust in President Obama’s ability to make the right decisions about reducing the deficit. Back in July, the poll found 46 percent of voters trusted the president to make the right decisions about how to reduce the federal deficit, while 34 percent trusted Republicans in Congress more.
The poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, interviewed 1,006 adults by landline and cell phone from Sept. 15 to Sept. 18 for most of the questions in the survey; those questions have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
When it comes to bipartisanship, the poll found that the public has little faith in the ability of the super committee—composed of six Democrats and six Republicans—to meet its deficit-reduction goal. A miniscule number of voters—only 4 percent—said they were “very confident” that the committee could agree on a plan to reach its deficit target and 21 percent were somewhat confident. By contrast, equal numbers of voters—36 percent—were “not too confident” and “not at all confident” that the committee could reach agreement. So while the public favors a balanced approach to deficit reduction, it seems to have little faith in Congress’s primary vehicle—the super committee—for reducing the deficit.
Voters are less unified when it comes to specific options for reducing the federal deficit. Consider the proposals that President Obama and Democrats have put forward. Forty-nine percent of the poll respondents strongly or somewhat supported eliminating the Bush-era tax cuts for families earning more than $250,000 per year; 44 percent strongly or somewhat opposed those cuts. Increasing the amount of taxes that private-equity, hedge-fund, and other investment firms pay on the profits they earn from managing other people’s portfolios was more popular: 56 percent of voters strongly or somewhat supported that proposal. Raising Medicare eligibility was the least popular idea: Only 36 percent of voters somewhat or strongly favored raising the age from 65 to 67.
The deficit-reduction proposals being put forward by congressional Republicans aren’t commanding overwhelming support, either. The notion of converting Medicare into a program that provides seniors with a fixed sum of money to buy private insurance was strongly or somewhat opposed by half of voters surveyed and strongly or somewhat supported by 42 percent. Filling only half of the federal government’s vacant jobs and reducing wages and benefits paid to federal workers is a GOP idea that received the backing of half the voters, while 45 percent opposed it. Responses to the question of whether the president’s health care law should be repealed were similarly inconclusive: 46 percent strongly or somewhat favored the law’s repeal, while 47 percent strongly or somewhat opposed its repeal.
Neither political party can take comfort in a landscape where voters have low confidence in Congress to perform and have not found a deficit-cutting plan they can embrace. With just over two months to go before the super committee is required to submit its conclusions to Congress, each party faces challenges rallying the enthusiasm of a doubtful electorate.
This article appears in the Sep. 20, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.