By JACKIE CALMES and DALIA SUSSMAN
Published: January 20, 2011
As President Obama and Congress brace to battle over how to reduce chronic annual budget deficits, Americans overwhelmingly say that in general they prefer cutting government spending to paying higher taxes, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.
Yet their preference for spending cuts, even in programs that benefit them, dissolves when they are presented with specific options related to Medicare and Social Security, the programs that directly touch the most people and also are the biggest drivers of the government’s projected long-term debt.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans choose higher payroll taxes for Medicare and Social Security over reduced benefits in either program. And asked to choose among cuts to Medicare, Social Security or the nation’s third-largest spending program — the military — a majority by a large margin said cut the Pentagon.
While Americans are near-unanimous in calling deficits a problem — a “very serious” problem, say 7 out of 10 — a majority believes it should not be necessary for them to pay higher taxes to bridge the shortfall between what the government spends and what it takes in. But given a choice of often-discussed revenue options, they preferred a national sales tax or a limit in the deduction for mortgage interest to a higher gasoline tax or taxing employer-provided health benefits.
Americans’ sometimes contradictory impulses on spending and taxes suggest the political crosscurrents facing both parties as they gird for debate over how to address the fiscal woes of a nation with an aging population, a complex tax system and an accumulated debt that is starting to weigh on the economy.
On Thursday, a large group of House conservatives called for cutting $2.5 trillion in mostly unspecified spending over the next decade and House Republican leaders have vowed to make spending cuts a priority in coming months after winning a majority on that promise in November’s midterm elections. President Obama is expected to make fiscal responsibility a central theme of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, and of the budget he will send Congress next month for the 2012 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
The antitax sentiment reflected in the poll is in line with Republicans’ mantra that spending, not taxes, is the problem for the federal budget. Yet that assessment contradicts the conclusions of several bipartisan and academic panels that proposed debt-reduction plans over the past year.
Those groups — including, in November, a bipartisan majority of Mr. Obama’s fiscal commission — each concluded that the growth in the nation’s debt could not be reined in with spending cuts alone. They said the required reductions, including for Medicare and Social Security, would be deeper than anything the public would accept.
The poll of 1,036 adults nationwide, which has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points, was conducted Jan. 15 through 19 — in the days after Mr. Obama gave a widely praised address at a Tucson memorial service for those killed in the shooting rampage that wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords, Democrat of Arizona. Nearly two-thirds of Americans approve of his response to the shooting, the poll showed; 11 percent disapprove.
National tragedies or crises often have a rallying-around effect that buoys a president’s public image. The poll, like others recently, shows Mr. Obama with a slightly improved approval rating. Nearly half of Americans, 49 percent, approve of his job performance, compared with 39 percent who do not.
The public also gives Mr. Obama the benefit of the doubt as he and Republicans adjust to their new power-sharing relationship. After a productive lame-duck session of Congress late last year, in which Mr. Obama won a number of concessions from Republicans in return for extending the Bush-era tax cuts on high incomes, the poll showed that nearly eight out of 10 Americans believe Mr. Obama will try to work with Republicans to get things done — including 77 percent of independents and 57 percent of Republicans. Less than half of all respondents — 46 percent — said Republicans will try to work with Mr. Obama.
The president holds no advantage over Republicans, however, on addressing the deficit and job creation. Americans split on whom they trust more to make the right decisions on both issues. The poll holds other warning signs for the president. With the unemployment rate remaining above 9 percent, majorities disapprove of his handling of the economy (52 percent), job creation (54 percent) and the deficit (56 percent).
Fewer people than ever think Mr. Obama has the same priorities for the country as they do: 52 percent say he does not share their priorities, down from 65 percent who said he did when Mr. Obama first took office.
Representative John A. Boehner, a Republican of Ohio who is the new House speaker, is relatively unknown to the national public; the roughly one-quarter who have an opinion of him are split between those with negative and positive views.
A far-better-known Republican, Sarah Palin, also is far more disliked. She is viewed unfavorably by 57 percent of the public, including a majority of independents — her highest negative rating ever in Times/CBS polls.
In a week that saw House Republicans vote to repeal Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement, the law overhauling the health care system, nearly half of Americans said the law should stand. About four in 10 people support repeal, but many say they want to undo only parts of the law.
Asked what Congress should focus on, 43 percent of Americans say job creation; health care is a distant second, cited by 18 percent, followed by deficit reduction, war and illegal immigration.
If Medicare benefits have to be reduced, the most popular option is raising premiums on affluent beneficiaries. Similarly, if Social Security benefits must be changed to make the program more financially sound, a broad majority prefers the burden fall on the wealthy. Even most wealthy Americans agree.
As budget woes force a national debate over the country’s domestic priorities, preserving money for education ranks at the top for most Americans.
The poll showed that the Arizona shootings had not changed Americans’ general opposition to banning handguns. However, more than six in 10 favor a nationwide ban on assault weapons and on the kind of high-capacity magazine used in Tucson.
Megan Thee-Brenan and Marjorie Connelly contributed reporting.
Poll Responses on How to Cut the Deficit
Results of a New York Times/CBS News poll about the federal budget deficit.