Poll: Americans want compromise on debt

Image: U.S. President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press on U.S. debt reduction in the Brady Press briefing room of the White House in Washington
President Barack Obama makes a statement to the press on U.S. debt reduction in the Brady Press briefing room of the White House on Tuesday.Jason Reed / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

As Democrats and Republicans wrestle over spending and deficits in advance of an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the debt ceiling, most Americans want their political leaders to compromise rather stand their ground, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Strong majorities of Democrats and independents prefer that Democratic congressional leaders make compromises in this budget debate, while almost 70 percent of independents want Republican leaders to do the same. And nearly six in 10 favor President Barack Obama’s proposal to lower the federal deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years by cutting federal spending, raising tax revenue from the wealthy and reducing some Medicare spending.

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) speaks alongside other U.S. Republican freshmen members of Congress as they call on Obama to present a written plan detailing his ideas for deficit reduction, in front of the White House, July 19, 2011. REUTERS/Jason Reed Jason Reed / X00458

By comparison, only about a third of respondents prefer the House Republican proposal to reduce the deficit by $2.5 trillion over 10 years through cutting spending alone and not raising additional revenues.  

Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, says the public’s message can be summed up in one phrase: “Compromise and get it done.”

“The public feels like this is a real problem that needs a real solution,” Hart explains. “And they want compromise by both parties.”

But there’s one hurdle to this compromise: A majority of Republicans — and nearly two-thirds of Tea Party supporters — want GOP leaders to hold their ground.

Increased support for raising debt ceiling
This NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll comes as a bipartisan group of U.S. senators released a proposal Tuesday that would cut discretionary spending, reform the entitlement programs Medicare and Medicaid, and overhaul the tax code.

Obama called the proposal “a very significant step, adding: “The hope is that everyone seizes this opportunity.”

The survey also comes as the Treasury Department says it will exhaust its borrowing authority on Aug. 2 unless the debt ceiling is increased.

In the poll, a plurality (by 38 percent to 31 percent) says the debt ceiling should be raised, which is sharp reversal from June, when a plurality (39 percent to 28 percent) opposed that move.

When told that failing to raise the debt ceiling could jeopardize payments to Social Security recipients and military personnel, 49 percent support increasing it. And 43 percent oppose it when told that an increase would make it harder to reduce the deficit.

“You are watching opinion shift as people are learning more about the debate,” says McInturff, the GOP pollster.

Fifty-five percent of all respondents — including 63 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 47 percent of Republicans — believe that not raising the ceiling would be problematic.

That's compared with just 18 percent who say it wouldn't be a real and serious problem. But that number jumps up to 33 percent among self-identified Tea Party supporters.

Obama’s deficit proposal vs. the House GOP’s
As far as the differing approaches to raise the debt ceiling, 58 percent favor Obama’s approach to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over 10 years by cutting spending, increasing revenue through taxing the wealthy and lowering Medicare’s spending.

Meanwhile, 36 percent support the House Republican proposal to reduce the deficit by $2.5 trillion through only spending cuts.

The poll also makes clear that the public is more open to raising taxes to balance the budget than it is making cuts and changes to entitlement programs.

Sixty-two percent support raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy if that’s the only way to get a debt-ceiling agreement in Congress. But 52 percent say they oppose making changes and cuts in Social Security and Medicare if that’s the only way to get an agreement.

And what happens if the debt ceiling isn’t increased and the federal government is unable to meet its obligations? According to the survey, 39 percent would blame congressional Republicans, 35 percent would blame Obama and congressional Democrats, and 17 percent would blame both.

But McInturff and Hart caution that those numbers could change if the federal government does default on its payments. “Attitudes prior to the event always change,” Hart says. “The public switches on a dime.”

The economy, Obama, and 2012
Yet when it comes to the public’s attitude on the economy and the country’s direction, it hasn’t changed much. Only 26 percent believe the country’s economy will improve in the next 12 months (down three points from June), while 45 percent think the worst is still ahead (up four points from last month).

Perhaps most significantly, 67 percent say the nation is headed in the wrong direction, the highest mark in Obama’s presidency.

“The public’s psyche, in looking at this economic situation, is very down,” Hart says. “There is no sense that we’ve turned a corner.”

But so far, Obama’s overall numbers have held up despite that pessimism.

The president’s overall job-approval rating stands at 47 percent, which is down two points from last month.

Moreover, Obama leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by seven points in a hypothetical 2012 general-election match up, 48 percent to 41 percent. And he leads Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., by 15 points, 50 percent to 35 percent.

But the margin is much closer when the president is paired with a generic Republican: 42 percent say they’d probably vote for Obama, while 39 percent say they’d probably back the eventual GOP nominee.

Bachmann surges into second place
In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney remains the national leader, with 30 percent of GOP primary voters saying he’s their first choice. Yet Bachmann has surged into second place with support from 16 percent of GOP primary voters. A month ago — before she announced her presidential bid — Bachmann was just at 3 percent.

(Among Tea Party supporters, Romney narrowly leads Bachmann, 24 percent to 20 percent, while Bachmann is ahead among Republican primary voters who identify themselves as very conservative, 24 percent to 22 percent.)

Romney and Bachmann are followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (who hasn’t yet decided on a presidential run) at 11 percent, Texas Congressman Ron Paul at 9 percent, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 8 percent.

Behind them are ex-Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain at 5 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum at 3 percent, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman tied at 2 percent.

The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted of 1,000 adults (200 reached by cell phone) from July 14-17, and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.