— Americans want Congress to delay steep spending cuts to give the economic recovery more time to take hold, according to a Bloomberg News poll.
When Washington does confront the deficit issue, Americans back a compromise that includes more tax revenue and fundamental changes to Social Security and Medicare, a deal that would require give-and-take by both Republicans in Congress and President Barack Obama.
Fifty-four percent of poll respondents favor postponing $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts during the next nine years beginning on March 1, compared with 40 percent who say Congress should act now before the deficit gets out of control, in the poll conducted Feb. 15-18.
"The across-the-board cuts that they're planning to do would do more harm to the general population than trying to wait and pick and choose which ones we really need," poll respondent Mark Seeger, a school psychologist from Valparaiso, Ind., said in a follow-up interview. "Right now, a lot of people are holding on by the skin of their teeth — they're opting whether to go to the doctor or have food — and I just think we need to wait until the economy gets back on its feet before we just go in and cut without thinking."
Almost 3 in 5 say the budget deficit should be curbed through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases on companies and high earners, as the White House has proposed, rather than focusing exclusively on spending reductions, as Republicans assert. Majorities also say overhauls of Social Security and Medicare — including changes disproportionately aimed at wealthier recipients — are "necessary" to lower the deficit.
"For now, Americans favor Obama's approach mixing cuts and new revenue to avoid a shutdown, and to let the economy that is perceived as gaining traction pick up speed," said J. Ann Selzer, president of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the telephone poll of 1,003 U.S. adults. The survey has an error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Sixty-four percent of Americans oppose a government shutdown of non-critical services should Obama and Congress fail to reach a budget agreement in the coming months. Twenty-eight percent say doing so would not be all that harmful.
Independents by 2 to 1 oppose shuttering the government in the absence of a spending compromise, yet they were more split about what to do about the automatic budget cuts. Forty-five percent support making cuts now to reduce the deficit before it gets out of control, while 49 percent say the reductions should be delayed in the interest of allowing the economy to rebound.
Russell Richter, a 52-year-old independent living in Jefferson City, Mo., says he's so frustrated with Obama and congressional Republicans that the only way to force deficit reduction is to shake up the system.
"Like with human nature, whether it be an alcoholic or a spendaholic like we have up there in Washington, I think that they're going to have to hit rock-bottom before they really realize what's going on and what needs to be done," Richter, an operations director at a car dealership, said in a follow-up interview. Of a potential government shutdown, he adds: "Not only do I not think it would be that harmful, I think it's almost necessary to wake people up in Washington and make some hard choices."
Fifty-one percent of respondents say overhauling Social Security is necessary to substantially reduce the deficit, and 58 percent say so of Medicare. Large majorities say they favor changes to curtail those programs, including 59 percent who back creating a sliding income scale for Social Security in which poorer people get more benefits and wealthy people fewer; 63 percent support such a system for Medicare; and 64 percent back curbing the cost-of-living increase for Social Security benefits.
"It upsets me about Social Security, because I paid into it, we all did, and they wasted our money," said Susan Turner, 64, a retired Democratic Air Force employee living in Titusville, Fla., in a follow up interview. "But I do think we need to take a look at it — we need to take a look at Medicare too."
There is little public appetite for cuts to federal education, food stamps and transportation programs, with majorities saying such spending shouldn't be touched. Americans do support reductions in environmental and defense programs and grants for the arts and scientific research.
Both Obama and congressional Republicans draw weak marks on accomplishing their stated objectives.
Fifty-three percent of respondents say Republicans haven't made much of a difference in achieving their goal of reducing government spending, with another 34 percent saying they've allowed spending to increase. Fifty-one percent say Obama and congressional Democrats haven't had much success in protecting entitlements including Social Security and Medicare from spending cuts, compared with 32 percent who say they've done a good job.
While the results give the White House a public opinion edge on some elements of the budget debate, Republicans win support in the clashes over raising the debt ceiling.
Seventy-one percent of respondents say it's right to require spending cuts when the debt limit is raised — a routine demand of Republicans over the last two years — while just 21 percent say the full faith and credit of the U.S. should be "protected at any cost."
At the same time, the size and trajectory of the U.S. deficit is poorly understood by most Americans, with 62 percent saying it's getting bigger, 28 percent saying it's staying about the same this year, and just 6 percent saying it's shrinking. The Congressional Budget Office reported Feb. 6 that the federal budget deficit is getting smaller, falling to $845 billion this year — the first time in five years that the gap between taxes and spending will be less than $1 trillion.
Americans also have a skewed picture of what drives federal spending.
At least half correctly pegged defense programs, Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid — both of which comprise about one fifth of the federal budget — as accounting for at least 20 percent of federal spending. Yet almost a third of respondents say the same about education — which actually comprises 2 percent of the budget — and foreign aid — which registers at just 1 percent of federal spending. Almost 40 percent of respondents say the social safety net, including food stamps and jobless benefits, make up at least a fifth of the federal budget; in fact, such programs amount to about 13 percent of total spending.