WASHINGTON — Alarmed by rising national debt and increasingly downbeat about their country's course, Americans are clear about how they want to attack the government's runway budget deficits: raise taxes on the wealthy and keep hands off of Medicare and Medicaid.
At the same time, they say that the government should not raise the legal debt ceiling, which the government must do soon to borrow more money, despite warnings that failing to do so would force the government into default, credit markets into turmoil and the economy into a tailspin.
Those are among the findings of a national McClatchy-Marist poll taking the country's pulse just as President Barack Obama and Congress launch what could be a multi-year debate on the role of government and how to finance it.
Obama heads to northern Virginia on Tuesday and California on Wednesday to pitch his long-term budget proposals, as lawmakers from Congress are taking a spring recess, with most in their home districts.
On tackling the deficit, voters by a margin of 2-to-1 support raising taxes on incomes above $250,000, with 64 percent in favor and 33 percent opposed.
Independents supported higher taxes on the wealthy by 63-34 percent; Democrats by 83-15 percent; and Republicans opposed by 43-54 percent.
Support for higher taxes rose by 5 percentage points after Obama called for that as one element of his deficit-reduction strategy last week. Opposition dropped by 6 points. The poll was conducted before and after the speech.
Americans clearly don't want the government to cut Medicare, the government health program for the elderly, or Medicaid, the program for the poor. Republicans in the House of Representatives voted last week to drastically restructure and reduce those programs, while Obama calls for trimming their costs but leaving them essentially intact.
Voters oppose cuts to those programs by 80-18 percent. Even among conservatives, only 29 percent supported cuts, and 68 percent opposed them.
Public views are more mixed on cutting defense spending, with 44 percent supporting cuts and 54 percent opposed.
One dividing line is education: College graduates want to cut defense spending by 63-36 percent. Non-college graduates oppose cutting the Pentagon by 61-36 percent.
No matter how the government tackles its deficits and debt, Americans don't want it to borrow any more. By 69-24 percent, voters oppose raising the legal ceiling for debt. That includes Democrats, who oppose it by 53-36 percent, independents, who oppose it by 74-22 percent, and Republicans, who oppose it by 79-16 percent.
- Only 44 percent of voters approve of Obama's job performance, while 49 percent disapprove. That was down from 48 percent approval in January, and marked the 17th straight month that his approval has been below 50 percent;
- Only 34 percent of voters approve, and 61 percent disapprove, of the way he's handling the budget deficit, projected to total about $1.6 trillion this year;
- Only 30 percent approve of the way Republicans in Congress are doing their job, while 63 percent disapprove.
Underlying it all, Americans are in a pessimistic mood. Fewer than one in three — 32 percent of registered voters — think the country's headed in the right direction, while 63 percent think it's headed in the wrong direction.
Among all adults, including non-voters, the tally is 31-64 percent, the poorest since November 2007 at the onset of the Great Recession.
"We're going through a period of partisan bickering in Washington, lots of posturing and an economy that has not taken hold the way people want," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducted the poll.
Like every president, Obama is a lightning rod for public sentiments.
"I think he's doing the best he can with very little help," said Lynn King, a retired public school teacher in the town of Pelzer, S. C. "He needs a chance to develop his programs."
"He's got our country in the biggest debt that we can ever get in," countered Jack Millwood, a retired insurance agent in Gaffney, S.C. "I just think he's overspent on too much."
The survey suggested a disconnect between the country and the mood in Washington, where Obama and House Republicans congratulated themselves for their recent hard-fought agreement to cut spending. That fight took the government to the brink of a shutdown and produced spending cuts of $38.5 billion, or about 1 percent of the annual federal budget.
"Just because they came together in the 11th hour, that doesn't impress people right now," said Miringoff.
(James Rosen of the Washington Bureau contributed.)
This survey of 1,274 adults was conducted on April 10-14. Adults 18 years of age and older residing in the continental United States were interviewed by telephone. Telephone numbers were selected based upon a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers. The two samples were then combined.
Results are statistically significant within ï¿½3.0 percentage points. There are 1,084 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant within ï¿½3.0 percentage points. There are 551 registered voters who completed the survey before President Obama's April 13th speech and 470 registered voters who completed the survey after his speech. The results for these subsets are statistically significant within ï¿½4.5 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.
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