Defense cuts: The lesser of two evils?

at 03:50 PM ET, 07/17/2012

Congressional Republicans are looking to saddle President Obama with blame for automatic cuts to defense spending set to take effect in 2013, under the debt ceiling deal from last year. The issue will take center stage in Congress Wednesday, when the House Armed Services Committee hears testimony from defense contractors on the (likely negative) impact of major defense spending cuts on their industry. 

The issue may be a potent political weapon, as deep cuts to the military are not popular. But polling shows that in general, Americans are much more open to cutting back on defense spending than for two other major programs that account for huge chunks of the federal budget: Medicare and Social Security.

When a February CBS News/New York Times poll asked Americans which of these programs they would be most willing to change to cut spending, 52 percent chose the military while just 15 percent picked Medicare and 13 percent chose Social Security. Polls from Reuters/Ipsos and United Technologies/National Journal corroborate this finding, with more supporting cuts to defense than the two major entitlement programs. 

But while Americans clearly prefer cuts to the military over entitlement programs, this does not mean cutting military spending is hugely popular, nor that it's a safe move politically. In fact, neither is true.

A bare majority of Americans -- 51 percent -- supported "reducing military spending" in a  Washington Post-Bloomberg News poll last November, but that sank to 40 percent supporting "major cuts" in a CNN/ORC poll the same month.

The military's wide popularity as an institution also makes cutting its budget a dicey endeavor, and an easy target for opponents on the campaign trail. Three-quarters of Americans said they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the military in a June Gallup poll, more than 15 other institutions Gallup asked about, including the police and medical system. The military rating remains high despite the fact that Americans soured on its biggest efforts in the past decade, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

 
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