03/08/2011 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What "The American People" Really Want

Ever since the midterm congressional election last year, Republicans have been repeating the phrase "The American People" as often as they can, as a sort of mantra. This isn't all that unusual, since politicians claiming a popular mandate is par for the course in the political game. But Republicans are exhibiting a rather large amount of overreach when it comes to claiming what "The American People" really want the government to do (and not to do). This is going to be on full display in the coming weeks, as the budget fights heat up (finishing this year's budget, raising the debt ceiling, and tackling next year's budget). Most Republicans, especially those of the Tea Party persuasion, are firmly convinced they've got a sweeping mandate to slash federal spending in all sorts of areas. But they may be surprised by what the public really thinks about these issues, and what they do and do not support. Helpfully, a new poll put out by the Wall Street Journal and NBC shows a clear list of priorities for what the people really want to see cut, and what they don't.

The answers, however, may come as a complete surprise to the inside-the-Beltway set -- both politicians and the mainstream media. Because it is not what we've been told, by both Republicans and their media enablers, in recent months.

For instance, while Republicans are obsessed over deficits, the public's number one issue is jobs and the economy -- which it pretty consistently has been for months. Republicans, though, have largely dropped the "jobs" issue like a hot potato after the midterms. No jobs bills have made it through even the House of Representatives, while Republicans pat themselves on the back and hold the ridiculous hearings and ridiculous votes they have been itching for, during their time in the minority party wilderness. The public even supports, by a thin margin, the government doing more for people rather than less -- which is not exactly what the Republicans ran on in the last campaign.

But that's not the real news. The poll actually made a good attempt at tackling the question: "What do Americans want to see the federal government cut?" They asked the question in two slightly different ways, with an extensive list of options for people to choose from. The poll isn't perfect (no poll is), some of which I'll address at the end. But the answers to these questions showed some very interesting differences in the priorities of the American people versus the priorities the Republicans are hewing to in Congress. From the full poll report (pages 16 and 17, in specific), here is the list, in order of the relative public support for each idea:

[Numbers given below are, in order: "percent approve" followed by "percent disapprove"]

[81-17]  -- Placing a surtax on federal income taxes for people earning over one million dollars a year

[78-17]  -- Eliminating spending on so-called earmarks for special projects and specific areas of the country

[76-22]  -- Eliminating funding for weapons systems the Defense Department says are not necessary

[74-22]  -- Eliminating tax credits for the oil and gas industry

[68-29]  -- Phasing out the Bush tax cuts for families earning two hundred and fifty thousand dollars or more per year

[67-26]  -- Freezing annual domestic spending at its current level for the next five years

[62-37]  -- Reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthier retirees

[57-40]  -- Cutting subsidies to build new nuclear power plants

[56-42]  -- Gradually raising the Social Security retirement age to sixty-nine by the year 2075

[52-45]  -- Cutting federal assistance to state governments

[51-46]  -- Cutting funding for the new health care law so that parts of it will not be put into effect or enforced

[51-46]  -- Cutting funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA)

[51-46]  -- Cutting funding for transportation and infrastructure projects

[48-51]  -- Cutting funding for scientific and medical research

[46-52]  -- Cutting national defense

[45-54]  -- Reducing agriculture subsidies or supports to farmers and ranchers

[45-53]  -- Eliminating funding for Planned Parenthood for family planning and preventative health services

[44-50]  -- Gradually turning Medicare from a system in which the government pays for most beneficiaries' medical bills into a program in which seniors would receive government-issued vouchers in order to purchase private health insurance

[43-55]  -- Cutting unemployment insurance

[41-56]  -- Cutting funding for the Head Start pre-kindergarten program

[39-59]  -- Cutting college student loans

[34-65]  -- Cutting heating assistance to low-income families

[32-67]  -- Cutting Medicaid, the federal government health care program for the poor

[23-76]  -- Cutting Medicare, the federal government health care program for seniors

[22-76]  -- Cutting K through 12 education

[22-77]  -- Cutting Social Security

That is what "The American People" think about deficit cutting (I have a few caveats, which I'll address at the end). By an overwhelming majority -- over eight in ten people think the best idea to cut our deficits is to slap higher taxes on millionaires.

Roughly three-fourths of Americans think that eliminating earmarks, eliminating redundant weapons systems, and eliminating oil and gas industry tax breaks are all dandy ideas. The same three-fourths think it would be a bad idea to cut Social Security, K-through-12 education funds, and Medicare.

An overwhelming majority (above six in ten) want Congress to phase out the Bush tax cuts for wealthy Americans, agree to President Obama's five-year spending freeze, and means-test Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthy retirees. By the same percentage, the public is not in favor of cutting Medicaid or heating assistance to the poor.

You can see somewhat of a trend developing, when viewed this way, can't you?

The next tier of choices had less support from the public, but still over 55 percent -- a pretty comfortable majority, in other words. This level of support was seen for cutting nuclear power plant subsidies and raising the retirement age for Social Security -- and against cutting college student loans and Head Start programs for kids.

All the other choices on the list fell somewhere between 55 percent support and 44 percent support -- items where the public is pretty close to being truly split on the issue, in other words.

But the most interesting thing about the list is how far down all the current Republican proposals rate with "The American People" (with the one big exception being getting rid of earmarks, which is often a tricky question -- most people are for cutting earmarks for all the other districts and states, but most people are also in favor of such for their state or district). To be fair, some of President Obama's proposals don't rate very high on the list either (such as cutting home heating subsidies, for instance).

But Obama's decision to place one big issue squarely in the middle of the 2012 campaign is looking smarter and smarter -- taxing the richest Americans. This was seen as risky when he made the deal last December to continue the Bush tax cuts for two years, since they'll expire right after the 2012 election. Meaning it'll be a major issue during the campaign. But, from the evidence (and depending on the wording), Obama has from 68 to 81 percent of the public on his side in this upcoming fight.

Cutting government spending is one of those things that sounds good in the abstract, but becomes a lot more personal to the voter when the cuts are outlined in detail ("Hey, wait a minute -- I didn't mean you should cut that!"). For the next few months, Republicans are about to find this out. They may be able to rally public support for some of their ideas which are particularly odious to Democrats (check out how high on that list cutting EPA funding is, for example), but the Republicans are also likely to push hard for some ideas which the public is already firmly against -- to their political peril (like cutting education funding, for example).

But Democrats should be fighting this fight just as hard as the Republicans. And the easiest way to do so is to refute Republicans whenever they utter the phrase "The American People" in front of any of their budget-slashing agenda. Democratic officeholders should print out a copy of this poll, and have it at the ready whenever appearing with a Republican in the media. After hearing a Republican say "The American People are firmly behind our budget cuts," all that a Democrat would have to do is respond: "Actually, that is just not true. According to polling, the highest priority the, quote, American People, unquote, have when it comes to solving our budget problems is to slap a surtax on millionaires. Over eighty percent of people ranked it the most popular choice in a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal, not exactly a bastion of Liberalism. The American People, by large majorities, do not want to see us cut education funding, and they do not want to see us slash Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. They would much rather we raise taxes on the rich. Those are the facts of what the American People want, not partisan spin."


[Caveats: First, one poll is not definitive. However, most public polling simply does not delve so deeply into the subject matter, meaning we don't have a whole lot of other polling to compare this poll to. This may be rectified, as the issue heats up in the public sphere and other polling companies start asking similar questions. The list of cuts offered in this poll is also nowhere near complete -- for example, no mention of adjusting or removing the cap on Social Security payroll taxes, which usually polls pretty high when adequately explained. There are plenty of government programs not even mentioned -- like the War on Drugs, the Border Patrol, or "abstinence education," to name but three which might have been interesting to see asked. The poll also gave no information on the relative size of the savings each program would have -- meaning cutting the Pentagon's budget was given equal weight with cutting Planned Parenthood's (which is not even close to being equal). The list of responses was given as answers to two slightly-differently-worded questions (again, see the full poll data, pages 16 and 17), which necessitated slight rewording of the answers in my article above (mostly adding the word "cutting" for clarity). The different wording of the two questions may have introduced some statistical uncertainty in the answers. Also, the full list was not presented to each poll respondent, as only half the list was read (for each of the two questions) to each person, which again could introduce anomalies in the resulting data. I have combined the categories to present the data in an easier-to-read fashion -- all the original answers were given on a scale of "totally acceptable / mostly acceptable / mostly unacceptable / totally unacceptable / don't know" (again, see the full data if you want to see how the numbers break down). But, having said all of that, this was still an interesting and instructive poll, due to how deeply they examined the question of what the public would like to see done to fix the budget deficit. Most polls simply have never asked these questions to the public before, which is why I thought the data deserved highlighting, and deserved more attention from the media than this poll has been getting. It also would work wonders for Democrats who are getting sick and tired of hearing Republicans repeat their "The American People" mantra.]


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