CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the incorrect percent of the public that wants tax breaks across all income levels made permanent. Eighteen percent polled support the position taken by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
As President Obama navigates a choppy economy in his reelection bid, he can rely on one comforting fact: Americans continue to strongly embrace his opposition to extending tax breaks for those earning more than $250,000 a year.
A new United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll shows that only 26 percent of the public wants to see all of the tax breaks created during the George W. Bush administration, which are set to expire at year's end, extended for at least another year. And only 18 percent want the tax breaks across all income levels made permanent, the position taken by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
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That the broader public prefers taxing the rich to taxing themselves is not surprising. But the poll results offer evidence of the political benefits that the president can derive from his opposition to the Bush-era tax breaks for high-income earners. Obama has made this a centerpiece of his campaign. It also shows the difficulties that the GOP faces trying to convince voters that the $250,000 threshold hits small businesses and would hurt the economy, and why that narrative has gained little traction with the public at large.
In the poll, 47 percent of respondents said they wanted to see the tax breaks extended only for those earning less than $250,000. Eighteen percent said they prefer that all the tax breaks simply expire, which would result in higher taxes across the income spectrum.
The question of how to handle the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, of course, will be settled not on the campaign trail but in Congress. No action is expected until after the fall elections, when the lame-duck Congress will have to tackle not only the Bush tax cuts, but automatic cutbacks to defense spending, an expiring payroll-tax break, the rising estate tax, and a potential debt-ceiling increase. Collectively, that looming fiscal fight has become known as "Taxmaggedon."
Republicans have argued that raising taxes amid an economic downturn could plunge the country back into recession. And Democrats have not stayed united in opposition, as former President Clinton made waves this month when he suggested in a televised interview that lawmakers should "avoid anything that would contract the economy now." He later issued a clarifying statement saying he supported Obama's position.
"Even Bill Clinton came out for it, before he was against it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
The opposition to extending the Bush-era tax breaks for those earning above $250,000 spanned across every ethnic and age group in the poll, with young voters most opposed. Opinion did differ among various income groups. Only 21 percent of those who earn less than $30,000 a year want the tax breaks for all earners extended; 28 percent of those earning between $30,000 and $75,000 want them extended; and 31 percent among those earning at least $75,000 favor the across-the-board extension.
With less than five months until the November elections, the survey shows how both Democrats and Republicans have tried to stake out popular positions on fiscal issues not just among their respective bases, but also among the critical independent swing voters that determine elections.
For Obama, that means talking about the Bush tax cuts. For Republicans, it's pushing small-business tax breaks, rather than more spending on things like highways and infrastructure, to pump up the slumping economy.
It's no accident that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., pushed through legislation this year that promised business-tax breaks to spur hiring. Obama embraced Cantor's Jobs Act, despite angering some in his own party, and the pair made a rare joint appearance for a Rose Garden signing ceremony.
When asked what Congress could do to help the economy and create jobs, the top answer picked by poll respondents (37 percent of them) was "passing tax cuts for small businesses to encourage them to hire more workers."
Republicans particularly embraced that approach (52 percent), but it was also the most popular option selected among both Democratic voters (35 percent) and independents (32 percent).
Business-tax breaks easily outpolled added taxes on imported goods (24 percent), using a transportation bill to promote road-building (20 percent), and added subsidies to promote the use of clean energy (11 percent). Clearly, three years after the stimulus package, the public still appears to doubt the ability of government investments to help the economy.
The strong showing for new taxes on foreign products, meanwhile, was only one example of a protectionist streak coursing through the electorate, according to the survey. A majority, 52 percent, also said that "economic competition from foreign countries selling their goods here" has contributed "a lot" to suppressing U.S. family incomes.
There was no party split on that question: A majority of Democrats, Republicans, and independents agreed that goods produced abroad were depressing incomes here. That was the highest figure of the four choices presented in the poll. The next most popular, checking in at 47 percent, was that government policies "give too many tax breaks to the wealthy," followed by 46 percent who blamed "government spending and regulation."
Finishing a distant fourth, with only 25 percent of respondents saying it had "a lot" of impact on suppressing family incomes, was "the decline in labor-union membership."
The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which surveyed 1,002 adults by landline and cell phone on June 14-17. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points. The margin of error is higher for subgroups.