Poll: Most want ‘fiscal cliff’ compromise but oppose cuts that may be part of deal

Post reporter Paul Kane stops by to give us the latest developments in the talks between House Speaker Boehner and President Obama and if a deal looks likely this week. (The Fold/The Washington Post)
December 18, 2012

Most Americans want President Obama and congressional Republicans to compromise on a budget agreement, though they, too, are unhappy about the options that would avert the “fiscal cliff,” according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The strong support for compromise belies widespread public opposition to big spending cuts that are likely to be part of any deal.

Most Americans oppose slashing spending on Medicaid and the military, as well as raising the age for Medicare eligibility and slowing the increase of Social Security benefits, all of which appear to be on the table in negotiations. Majorities call each of these items “unacceptable.”

A clear majority of Americans, 74 percent, say they would tolerate Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on those with incomes over $250,000, but neither side in the talks thinks that alone would generate enough revenue to bridge the budget gap. A smaller majority backs limits to tax deductions.

In general, the public mood is sour about both sides. Fully 76 percent see the Republicans as too intractable on the deficit issue, and most, 57 percent, also see Obama as not being willing enough to compromise. Both numbers are similar to those from a Post-ABC poll amid the 2011 clash over raising the nation’s debt limit.

Public advocates compromise, seeks balanced approach

Underscoring the lack of faith in Washington, just 14 percent see it as “very likely” that Obama and congressional Republicans will agree on a deficit-reduction plan.

In the first Post-ABC poll since Obama’s reelection six weeks ago, 54 percent of all Americans say they approve of how the president is handling his job — his highest mark in nearly two years, other than a momentary high of 56 percent after the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The positive trend for Obama extends into another key measure: For the first time in 2 1 / 2 years, 50 percent approve of his handling of the economy. Obama bottomed out at 35 percent on this score after the showdown over the debt limit.

Nonetheless, barely more than a third of all Americans see the president as having a broad-based mandate coming out of the November election. Among political independents, which as a group narrowly sided with Republican Mitt Romney over Obama in November, twice as many say the president should compromise with the GOP than say he has a general mandate.

While there is a desire for both sides to reach across the aisle in the fiscal cliff talks, the public is particularly critical of congressional Republicans. That puts Obama in a relatively strong negotiating position with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), at least in the court of public opinion.

While only 45 percent of Americans give Obama positive marks, far fewer — 26 percent — approve of the way Republicans are handling the budget issue. Among Republicans, barely more than half approve of their party leaders’ handling of the negotiations, while three-quarters of Democrats see Obama as doing a good job.

Should the talks break down, 47 percent say they would blame Republicans; 31 percent say they are more likely to point the finger at Obama. Some 18 percent, a growing number, volunteer that they would hold both sides equally culpable.

Overall, 70 percent of Americans disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their job; just 25 percent approve.

The president holds big advantages when it comes to public trust on broad themes, such as coping with the country’s main problems. He also has double-digit leads over Republicans in Congress on handling the economy and protecting the middle class.

Two years ago, just after the midterm elections that returned the GOP to the majority in the House, Americans were divided on the economy — 45 percent trusted Republicans and 44 percent favored Obama. Now, the president has an edge of 54 percent to 36 percent on what remains voters’ top issue.

The president’s advantage over congressional Republicans swells to 26 percentage points on advancing the interests of the middle class.

But on two specific issues at the core of the debate in Washington — taxes and budget deficits — Obama and the Republicans in Congress are far more evenly matched. On handling the federal budget deficit, 45 percent of Americans trust Obama, compared with 41 percent for congressional Republicans. The balance is similar on handling taxes: 46 percent for Obama and 42 percent for Republicans.

On taxes, support breaks down along income levels. Among Americans with household incomes below $50,000, Obama leads Republicans 55 percent to 33 percent. But among those who bring in $50,000 or more, Republicans lead on taxes, 51 percent to 38 percent. Obama wants to increase taxes on the top 2 percent of income earners while continuing the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the other 98 percent of Americans.

Majorities of Americans are at least somewhat concerned that a failure to reach an agreement could hurt the national economy, as well as their personal finances.

Nearly nine in 10 Americans are at least somewhat concerned about what may happen to the national economy, including 58 percent who say they are “very concerned.” Fewer are as intensely worried about the potential effect on their own finances. Middle-income Americans are estimated to be on the hook for an additional $2,000 in taxes next year if a deal is not reached.

Ratings of Obama’s overall job performance continue to peak among women and non-whites, but he is also at his strongest position in years among seniors, an important part of Romney’s coalition. Just over half of those 65 or older now approve of the president’s job performance, marking the first time the number has topped 50 percent since July 2009, during Obama’s first summer in office.

The telephone poll was conducted Thursday through Sunday among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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