As politicians in Washington — and across the country — seek to cut spending to reduce their budget deficits, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that the American public is divided about how far they should go.
In the poll, eight in 10 respondents say they are concerned about the growing federal deficit and the national debt, but more than 60 percent — including key swing-voter groups — are concerned that major cuts from Congress could impact their lives and their families.
What’s more, while Americans find some budget cuts acceptable, they are adamantly opposed to cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and K-12 education.
And although a combined 22 percent of poll-takers name the deficit/government spending as the top issue the federal government should address, 37 percent believe job creation/economic growth is the No. 1 issue.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, says these results are a “cautionary sign” for a Republican Party pursuing deep budget cuts.
He points out that the Americans who are most concerned about spending cuts are core Republicans and Tea Party supporters, not independents and swing voters.
“It may be hard to understand why a person might jump off a cliff, unless you understand they’re being chased by a tiger,” he said. “That tiger is the Tea Party.”
GOP vs. swing-voter groups
For instance: 33 percent of Tea Party supporters, 34 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of voters backing John McCain in the last presidential election, list deficit/spending as the top issue the federal government should address — compared with 23 percent of independents, 24 percent of suburban women, 19 percent of seniors and 19 percent of those aged 18 to 34.
By contrast, 35 percent of seniors, 39 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds, 40 percent of independents and 41 percent of suburban women believe job creation/economic growth is the nation's top issue.
And two-thirds of independents, seniors, 18- to 34-year-olds and suburban women say they are concerned that major cuts to government spending could impact them and their families. Roughly half of Republicans, McCain voters and Tea Party supporters express the same concern.
In the spending showdown between congressional Democrats and Republicans, only 25 percent believe the disagreement over the budget will lead to a shutdown of the federal government. A whopping 71 percent believe that lawmakers will reach an agreement to avert a shutdown.
Indeed, The Senate on Wednesday cleared legislation — which the House passed the day before — to extend government funding until March 18. The measure, which President Barack Obama signed into law Wednesday afternoon, included $4 billion in budget cuts, but the stopgap bill tees up another potential impasse in two weeks.
Whom will the public blame if there is a shutdown after March 18 or beyond? In the poll, 21 percent said Obama and the congressional Democrats would be responsible for a shutdown, while another 21 percent said congressional Republicans should take the blame. Fifty-seven percent said they would blame both sides equally.
Popular and unpopular cuts
The survey — which was conducted Feb. 24-28 of 1,000 adults (200 reached by cell phone), and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — also listed 26 different ways to reduce the federal budget deficit.
The most popular: placing a surtax on federal income taxes for those who make more than $1 million per year (81 percent said that was acceptable), eliminating spending on earmarks (78 percent), eliminating funding for weapons systems the Defense Department says aren’t necessary (76 percent) and eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industries (74 percent).
The least popular: cutting funding for Medicaid, the federal government health-care program for the poor (32 percent said that was acceptable); cutting funding for Medicare, the federal government health-care program for seniors (23 percent); cutting funding for K-12 education (22 percent); and cutting funding for Social Security (22 percent).
Those numbers, GOP pollster McInturff says, “serve as a huge flashing yellow sign to Republicans … if they are going to start to talk about changes to Medicare and Social Security.”
On Wisconsin and state battles
Turning to the budget battles taking place in the states, strong majorities say they are comfortable with states requiring their employees to pay more for their retirement and health care to balance budget deficits. But they oppose stripping public employees' collective-bargaining rights, as Republican Gov. Scott Walker is proposing in Wisconsin.
In the poll, 68 percent find it acceptable to require public employees to contribute more of their pay for retirement benefits; 63 percent are fine with requiring these employees to pay more for their health-care benefits; and 58 percent would be amenable to freezing public employees' salaries for one year.
However, just 33 percent say it's acceptable — and 62 percent say it's unacceptable — to eliminate some employees’ collective-bargaining rights as way to deal with state budget deficits.
In addition, 77 percent believe public employees should have the same collective-bargaining rights (when it comes to health care, pensions and other benefits) as union employees who work for private companies.
On Obama and 2012
President Obama’s job-approval rating in the poll sits at 48 percent, which is down five points since last month. “If you leave out [the Tucson shootings], the president’s job rating is where it was for most of 2010 — not terrible, not great,” said Hart, the Democratic pollster.
Against some notable Republicans in a hypothetical general-election presidential contest, Obama leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 49 percent to 40 percent and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty 50 percent to 31 percent.
But against a generic Republican, the president’s lead narrows to five points, with 45 percent saying they will “probably vote” for Obama and 40 percent saying they will “probably vote” for the GOP candidate.
In a hypothetical Republican presidential primary, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee leads the pack as the first choice of 25 percent of GOP primary voters — followed by Romney at 21 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 13 percent and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 12 percent.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul comes in fifth at 6 percent — followed by Pawlenty and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels at 3 percent, former Sen. Rick Santorum at 2 percent and Jon Huntsman, current U.S. ambassador to China, at 1 percent.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was the first choice of just one respondent out of the 282 GOP primary voters surveyed.
The “new normal”
Obama’s biggest weakness heading into 2012? It’s what Hart calls the “new normal.”
For instance, just 31 percent believe the nation is headed in the right direction. “We’re now at 20 months [in the NBC/WSJ poll] where we have not been able to break 40 percent [in the] right direction,” Hart said. “Essentially, this country has been in a long swoon.”
What’s more, only 29 percent of those surveyed think the economy will improve in the next 12 months. That’s down 11 points from January.
“This is a country that refuses to feel better,” said McInturff.
And that, Hart added, shapes a 2012 election cycle that could be “very, very close with a lot of challenges left ahead for the president.”
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.