WASHINGTON — Americans say giant federal deficits trouble them, but they're reluctant to charge ahead with a budget-cutting drive that would hurt the programs they like, a new poll shows.
With a bipartisan commission appointed by President Obama ready to unveil its ideas today for mopping up the red ink, an Associated Press-CNBC Poll shows the public divided over accepting the pain needed to address the problem. That wariness underscores the political risks Obama and Congress would face should they embark on a serious effort to shrink federal shortfalls, which have ballooned to over $1 trillion a year.
Forty-seven percent said the deficit should be reduced with spending cuts even if new education, health and energy programs were eliminated, but 46 percent said those programs should grow even if the red ink expands. Offered more than a dozen tax increases and spending cuts to help balance the budget, only four got majority support: Trim the federal work force, cut their salaries, close some overseas military bases and end the tax deduction on home mortgage interest in exchange for lower income tax rates.
"I know it's very difficult, but there has to be some way," said Maria Bennifield, 47, who runs a cleaning business in Phoenix and favors deficit reduction but opposes health and education cuts.
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One group that people seem increasingly willing to target is the rich. In a turnaround from early November, most oppose extending expiring tax cuts for the highest-earning Americans. Just 34 percent want to renew tax cuts for everyone; 50 percent prefer extending the reductions only for those earning under $250,000 a year and 14 percent want to end them for all.
After congressional elections that will give Republicans control of the House next year, both parties have given budget problems a higher profile. On Monday, Obama proposed freezing the pay of the government's 2 million civilian workers for the next two years, a step he said was among many needed to cut deficits.
Public angst about federal deficits is widespread. Eighty-five percent say growing red ink will harm future generations — the most concern registered since AP polls first asked the question in 2008. Fifty-six percent think the shortfalls will prompt a major economic crisis in the next decade.
The poll suggests that in some ways, Democratic and Republican leaders may be underestimating how willing their supporters around the country might be to accept proposals that conflict with party dogma.
In the AP-CNBC Poll, Democrats around the country split about evenly over whether a budget-balancing effort should focus on tax increases or spending cuts — even though Democrats in Washington are generally champions of government spending.
In a separate question measuring peoples' expectations, Republicans were roughly evenly divided over whether deficits can be erased without tax increases, despite GOP leaders' insistent opposition to higher taxes.
Yet the survey also shows that people are largely consistent with their party's principles. Democrats are likelier than Republicans to favor tax increases and plucking budget savings from the wealthy, while GOP loyalists more frequently favor spending cuts and protecting the Pentagon from reductions.
"We've got an awfully big government and a lot of waste," said Jackie Hallock, 53, a writer from Pawleys Island, S.C. "I think we should cut taxes, not raise taxes. They're already too high."
Asked to choose between two strategies for balancing the budget, 59 percent overall in the poll picked cutting unspecified government services while 30 percent preferred unspecified tax increases. That finding highlights the political danger lawmakers would face by proposing tax cuts when the economy is anemic and tea party supporters — an important voice in the GOP — say Washington is digging too far into people's wallets.
If there's a ray of hope for policymakers, it's the expectation many have for a broad deficit-reduction effort. Asked to consider each budget-balancing strategy separately, nearly two-thirds said tax increases will be needed to eliminate deficits and almost 8 in 10 said government services will have to be cut.
The public shows little eagerness to cull savings from Social Security and Medicare, the giant pension and health care programs for the elderly that together comprise a third of the $3.5 trillion annual budget.
The AP-CNBC Poll was conducted by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications from Nov. 18-22 and involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,000 adults chosen randomly nationwide. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.