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Extending Bush Tax Cuts: The Most Unpopular Thing Obama Has Done?

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Last week, CBS News released a poll finding that 53 percent of adults preferred to extend the Bush-era tax cuts only to those making less than $250,000, twice as many as preferred to keep the cuts for everyone. Other recent polling has found similar levels of support for keeping the cuts only within an income threshold.

And yet the Obama administration appears poised to negotiate extending the cuts for all Americans, regardless of income, seemingly squandering an opportunity to be on the right side of public opinion. If cuts are indeed extended for everyone, would this be the least popular piece of major legislation passed since Obama took office, with only 26 percent considering that their favored option?

As is typical of any polling on specific issues, different wording can produce vastly different results, which can be quite difficult to interpret. For example, the option of extending the cuts for everyone is not the least popular option in the tax debate itself. While most public polls have shown that extending the tax cuts only for those making less than $250,000 is by far the most popular option, polls have shown that allowing all of the cuts to expire would be even less popular. The same CBS poll found that only 14 percent wanted to let the cuts expire for everyone.

Additionally, a new poll released Monday by the conservative group Crossroads GPS found that, when presented with only two options, 65 percent of likely voters would prefer to extend the cuts and only 29 percent would allow them to expire.

Which points to the messaging danger Democrats face. If Republicans are able to successfully portray the debate as one between extending the tax cuts for everyone or not extending them at all, they've forced Democrats to argue on their terms. Even though extending the cuts for everyone is relatively less popular than extending them only for the middle class, failing to extend any of the cuts would be far less popular than both other options.

How do these results compare to previous legislation passed during Obama's tenure? The limited polling available shows that, overall, Obama seems to have had public opinion behind him.

While "government spending" has become somewhat of a dirty word in politics, the Economic Recovery Act polled well just before its passage in February of last year. A Gallup poll during that time found 59 percent in favor or the stimulus legislation, with only 33 percent opposed. Similarly, a CNN poll, a Pew poll, and a CBS News poll showed majorities in support of the legislation.

The extension of the State Children's Health Insurance Program was also extremely popular - 82 percent of respondents favored that option in a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation. While no polling directly asked about opinion of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, a more recent Gallup poll found strong support for that measure (though at the time of passage, an AP-GfK poll showed many expressing reservations about whether the bill would actually prevent another financial meltdown).

There is, of course, one strong counterexample: Obama's health care legislation. Most polls found more opposition to the plan than support for it, with many reporting opposition in excess of 50 percent.

But the health care dispute also offers an important parallel to the current tax debate. While the particular health bill under consideration faced skepticism, public polling showed the idea of a public option faring well--even as the administration prepared to drop that particular measure from the bill. Mark Blumenthal discussed some possible reasons for this (and pitfalls of interpreting the data) here and here. In short, the administration dropped the public option in an attempt to make the bill more palatable to moderate Republicans and conservative Democratic legislators, despite public perceptions at the time appearing to favor the Democrats' messages on that issue.

So would a complete extension of the Bush tax cuts be the least popular legislation passed since Obama took office?

Issue polling is notoriously difficult to conduct and interpret. Not only can language produce vastly different results, but many survey respondents will express opinions of issues they've never heard of. Research famous in the survey world, for example, revealed for 30-40 percent of respondents expressing an opinion on a completely fictional piece of legislation. And most respondents will form an opinion on the spot based on the question they hear, so interpreting issue poll results as a sign of deep-seated public opinion is usually a mistake.

Given the data available, it's difficult to say that passing a tax cut extension for everybody would be particularly unpopular--most Americans would prefer that option to allowing all tax cuts to expire. However, Obama's preferred position has been the most popular in the majority of public polls, once again poising Democrats to abandon a major policy goal despite American opinion.

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