Poll Shows Americans Fear Entitlement Cuts the Most in 'Cliff' Talks

By Shane Goldmacher

December 11, 2012

As President Obama and congressional leaders race to avert the fiscal cliff, Americans remain concerned that whatever budget deal they strike will cut too much from Medicare and Social Security, according to a new poll.

More of the Americans surveyed (35 percent) are worried about such cutbacks than seeing their tax bill rise (27 percent), the latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll has found. Lagging behind in the public prioritization is the fear that a budget accord would fall short of deficit-reduction targets (15 percent) or that it will allow the federal government to spend too much in coming years (13 percent).

The plurality have already fingered a favorite scapegoat if Congress and the White House fail to reach an agreement: everyone. Exactly half of those surveyed said that they would blame President Obama, congressional Democrats, and congressional Republicans equally for the failure. While 27 percent of respondents would blame the GOP solely, only 16 percent said they’d blame Obama, and 5 percent said congressional Democrats.

Combined, the results should be welcome news for Democrats itching to take a hard line in the fiscal-cliff negotiations: They show the public is nervous, as they are, about entitlement cuts, and that Democratic lawmakers likely won’t be blamed if the talks go south.

Still, there is reason for caution among Democrats contemplating what’s become known in Washington as “cliff diving.” The gap between those worried about entitlements and taxes has actually narrowed since the National Journal survey in October. Then, there was a 12-percentage-point gap in favor of entitlements; now, it stands at 8 points. 

The public has steadfastly opposed the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that would take effect if no deal is reached. In the survey, 63 percent called them a “bad idea.” Only 22 percent thought they should go into effect. Support for the cuts never topped 27 percent across all ages, income brackets, and levels of education. If lawmakers fail to reach a deal, independents, unsurprisingly, are more likely than either Democrats or Republicans to chide both political parties. A full 61 percent of independents said they’d blame both parties equally, compared with only 37 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of Republicans.

Overall, the share of the public that wants to blame all sides equally is down 11 points since October, with more choosing to blame both Obama and congressional Republicans.

The two biggest sticking points in the talks so far appear to be hiking taxes and reining in entitlement spending. Some notable Republicans, including Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, have said tax-rate hikes are likely.

“There is a growing group of folks who are looking at this and realizing we don’t have a lot of cards as it relates to the tax issue before year’s end,” Corker said on Fox News Sunday. He added, “A lot of people are putting forth a theory—and I actually think it has merit—where you go ahead and give the president the 2 percent increase that he is talking about, the rate increase on the top 2 percent. And all of a sudden, the shift goes back to entitlements.” 

Indeed, the new survey suggests that Republicans in the broader public are more concerned with shrinking the deficit than their own taxes. The top concern for GOP respondents was that a budget deal wouldn’t meet deficit-reduction targets (29 percent), not that taxes would rise (25 percent).

Democrats have largely hoped to wait out the GOP, believing House Republicans will cave on tax rates before the end of the year and not overhaul Medicare or Social Security. The poll shows a broad swath of the electorate is concerned about cutbacks to those programs. Even among some of the most reliable members of the Republican electoral coalition, such as noncollege white men, more feared cuts to entitlements (33 percent) than their taxes going up (26 percent).

Only among the most affluent—those earning $75,000 or more— and those in their prime earning years—ages 30 to 49—were pluralities more concerned about taxes (29 percent and 35 percent, respectively) than entitlements (27 percent and 28 percent).

There is also a 9-point gender gap concerning Medicare and Social Security, with 40 percent of women saying they are most concerned about cutbacks to those programs and only 31 percent of men saying the same. 

By Shane Goldmacher

December 11, 2012