Americans approve of spending cuts. But not really.

December 18, 2012

As President Obama and Republicans appear to be closing in on a budget deal to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff,” a new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds Americans of two minds when it comes to cuts in government spending: They say spending cuts should play a major role in a budget compromise, but recoil at specific proposals to get it done. 

Opposition to three potential cuts is bipartisan. Less than half of Democrats, Republicans and independents see a) cuts to Medicaid b) raising the Medicare retirement age or c) limiting cost of living adjustments for Social Security recipients as “acceptable” parts of a budget deal.

Cutting defense spending, a fourth proposal tested in the poll, is unpopular overall but gets mixed reviews from partisans. Fifty five percent of Democrats back such cuts, as do 48 percent of independents, but the number drops to just 22 percent of Republicans. Republicans are more welcoming to cuts and changes to entitlement programs than Democrats, though no proposal gains majority approval.

Tax increases aimed at higher-income Americans are -- no surprise -- much more popular. Majorities say they would accept a tax increase on those with incomes above $250,000, and a small majority supports putting a $50,000 cap on the amount of tax deductions people can claim. Republicans have eased their stern opposition to tax increases following Obama’s re-election, and on Tuesday House Speaker John A. Boehner planned to tell fellow Republicans he will endorse a tax increase on people with annual incomes above $1 million to help avoid the fiscal cliff.  

This bipartisan support for specific tax increases over proposed spending cuts runs counter to a backbone belief that spending cuts are necessary. In the poll, nearly half (47 percent) say most deficit reduction should come from spending cuts, while 10 percent says tax increases should dominate; 41 percent say the split should be 50-50.

The disconnect between principled belief in spending cuts and support for current proposals is stark. Americans who support a “mostly cuts” approach to deficit reduction are willing to accept an average of 1.6 out of the four cuts polled, and the highest support for any of the cuts is 44 percent (raising the Medicare eligibility age). And, while the “mostly tax increases” crowd supports even fewer cuts -- 1.2 of four -- fully 70 percent call military cuts acceptable, making them the only group where a majority accepts any particular cut.

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Chris Cillizza · December 18, 2012