March 16, 2011

Republicans Are Losing Ground on the Deficit, But Obama’s Not Gaining

Rising Prices Close in on Jobs as Top Economic Worry

Overview

As the budget debate moves into a crucial phase, far fewer Americans say that Republicans in Congress have the better approach to the budget deficit than did so in November, shortly after the GOP’s sweeping election victories. The GOP has lost ground on the deficit among political independents and, surprisingly, among key elements of the Republican base, including Tea Party supporters.

However, the public is no more supportive of Barack Obama’s approach to the budget deficit than it was in November. Rather, there has been a sharp rise in the percentage saying there is not much difference between Obama’s approach and that of congressional Republicans – 52% say that now, up from just 33% in November.

The shift in opinion has been particularly dramatic among Republicans, Republican-leaning independents and Tea Party supporters. Shortly after the November election, 76% of Tea Party supporters said Republicans in Congress had a better approach to the budget deficit while just 16% said there was not much difference between their approach and Obama’s. Today, 52% of Tea Party supporters say the GOP has a better approach and 39% say there is not much difference in how the two sides approach the deficit.

The latest nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 8-14 among 1,525 adults, finds that the public’s economic worries also have changed substantially over the past few months.

While the job situation is the top economic concern, the percentage citing rising prices as their biggest economic worry has nearly doubled from 15% in December to 28% today. And at 24%, the number saying the federal budget deficit is their top concern also has risen, from 19% in December and February.

Roughly a third (34%) say the job situation is their biggest economic concern, but this is down substantially from 44% a month ago and 47% as recently as December.

While deficit concerns are growing, there is broad opposition to raising taxes and making changes to Social Security and Medicare to reduce the budget deficit. Fully 67% oppose raising taxes and nearly as many (65%) oppose making changes in Social Security and Medicare.

Of four possible options for cutting the deficit, only one – lowering domestic spending – draws majority support. Roughly six-in-ten (61%) are in favor of cutting domestic spending while just 30% are opposed. The public is divided over lowering military spending (49% favor vs. 47% oppose) to reduce the deficit.

As Congress considers a new stopgap spending bill, nearly half of Americans (49%) say that the debate over the deficit and spending has been generally rude and disrespectful while just 27% say the debate has been polite and respectful. In contrast to attitudes about the deficit and government spending, which are divided along partisan lines, there is agreement about the tone of the debate: 48% of Republicans and Democrats, and 57% of independents, say the debate has been rude and disrespectful.

Neither Side Has Edge on Deficit

Following last fall’s midterm elections, more Americans said that the Republicans in Congress than President Obama had a better approach to the budget deficit (35% to 24%). In the new survey, just 21% say that Republicans have a better approach to the budget deficit, down 14 points from November. About the same percentage (20%) says Obama has a better approach, which is little changed since then (24%).

Over this period, the percentage saying there is not much difference between the two sides has jumped from 33% to 52%.

Currently, 52% of Republicans say that their party has a better approach to the deficit than Obama, but 41% say there is not much difference. In November, 69% said the GOP had a better approach and 21% said there was not much difference.

The proportion of Tea Party supporters who say Republicans in Congress have a better approach than Obama has fallen 24 points – from 76% to 52% – since November.

Independents also are far less supportive of the Republicans’ approach to the budget deficit. In November, 37% favored the GOP’s approach, while fewer than half as many (17%) preferred Obama’s; 40% said there was not much difference. In the new survey, 17% of independents say Republicans have a better approach, 13% prefer Obama’s approach while 62% say there is not much difference. Much of the change has come among Republican-leaning independents. Today just 35% of Republican-leaning independents say the GOP has a better approach to the deficit, down from 61% in November.

Mixed Views of Impact of Spending Cuts on Jobs

A modest plurality (41%) says that if the federal government makes major spending cuts to reduce the deficit, these reductions will not have much of an effect on the job situation. Among those who see the cuts have an impact, nearly twice as many say they will hurt (34%) rather than help (18%) the job situation.

Democrats and independents are about twice as likely to say that major cuts will hurt rather than help the job situation; 35% of Democrats and 45% of independents say spending cuts will not have much of an effect either way.

About as many Republicans say deep spending cuts will hurt (27%) as help (25%) the job situation; a plurality (41%) sees them having a negligible impact. Tea Party supporters are among the only groups in which slightly more see spending cuts helping (32%) rather than hurting (23%) the job situation; 39% say they will not have much an effect either way.

Approaches to Deficit Reduction

Of four broad approaches to tackling the federal budget deficit, only reductions in domestic spending are broadly supported. By two-to-one (61% vs. 30%) more favor than oppose lowering domestic spending as a way to reduce the budget deficit. The public is divided about evenly (49% favor, 47% oppose) when it comes to lowering defense and military spending, and opposition outweighs support by wide margins when it comes to raising taxes (67% oppose) or making changes to Social Security or Medicare (65% oppose).

There is considerably more support for lowering defense and military spending now than there was in March 2005. In the new survey 49% favor lowering defense spending; just 35% favored defense spending cuts in 2005. The public also is slightly more supportive of cuts in domestic spending (61% today, 54% then).

While there are significant partisan divisions on all of these deficit reduction approaches, partisan views differ most when it comes to defense spending. By a 57% to 40% margin Democrats favor lowering defense and military spending to deal with the deficit. By a 65% to 33% margin Republicans are opposed.

On domestic spending, majorities across party lines favor reductions, though the sentiment is broader among Republicans (71% favor) than among Democrats (54%). And when it comes to raising taxes or changing entitlements, majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents are opposed.

Independents tend to agree with Democrats in favoring cuts to defense and military spending, while only Republicans are opposed. But independent views are closer to Republicans when it comes to changing entitlements – 36% of Republicans and 35% of independents favor entitlement changes, compared with only 22% of Democrats.

On the controversial deficit cutting approaches – defense cuts, taxes and entitlements – college graduates are substantially more supportive of action than those without college degrees. A 61% majority of college graduates favors lowering defense and military spending, while more oppose than support such cuts among those without college degrees. And while tax hikes and entitlement changes are not popular in any group, each approach is supported by roughly four-in-ten college graduates, compared with fewer than three-in-ten people without college degrees.

Not surprisingly, the idea of changing entitlements is particularly sensitive to older Americans. Fully 75% of people 65 and older oppose changing Social Security and Medicare as a way to reduce the budget deficit, and 75% of those 50 to 64 agree. But younger people are less opposed to entitlement changes. In particular, among adults younger than 30, barely half (51%) oppose changing Social Security and Medicare, while 44% express support.

For more on the public’s attitudes regarding government spending and proposals for reducing the budget deficit, see:

Fewer Want Spending to Grow, But Most Cuts Remain Unpopular, Feb. 10, 2011. This report showed that while the public generally favors cuts in domestic spending, there is little support for cuts in specific programs. Nonetheless, the public is less inclined to favor increased spending for many programs than in the past.

Deficit Solutions Meet With Public Skepticism, Dec. 9, 2010. The public disapproves of most specific proposals aimed at reducing the budget deficit. Despite the broad reluctance to see changes in entitlement programs, a solid majority approves of making more of high earners’ income subject to Social Security tax.

A Shift in Top Economic Concerns

Over the course of the last three months, the number of Americans who cite rising prices as their biggest economic worry has nearly doubled from 15% in December to 28% today. And at 24%, the number saying the federal budget deficit is their top concern has also risen over just the past month.

The job situation remains the most widely cited economic concern – 34% say it worries them more than anything else – but this is down substantially from 44% a month ago and 47% as recently as December.

The focus on prices has risen across party lines, as 32% of Democrats, 28% of independents, and 22% of Republicans now say that rising prices represent their top economic worry today. And the share citing jobs as their number one concern is down across party lines, particularly among Republicans (26%) and independents (33%). The job situation remains the broadest concern among Democrats (41%), though this, too, is down from 56% in December.

Republicans and Democrats differ most in their level of concern about the federal budget deficit. Among Republicans, the deficit is the top economic concern, at 37%. By comparison, just 15% of Democrats cite the budget deficit as their top economic worry. Independents’ concerns are divided, with 25% citing the deficit, 28% rising prices, and 33% the job situation as their top economic worry.

Nearly half (46%) of Americans who agree with the Tea Party cite the deficit as their top economic concern, more than double the number among those who disagree with (20%) or have no opinion about (18%) the Tea Party.

Aside from partisanship, deficit concerns are broadest among more educated and higher income Americans, as well as among whites and among men. By contrast, inflation concerns are broadest among those with less education and lower incomes, as well as among women.

Economic worries also differ by age. Among adults under age 65, a 36% plurality cites the job situation as their top concern, compared with 24% of Americans age 65 and older. Seniors, by contrast, are more likely to cite the budget deficit as their top concern than those who are under 65 (34% vs. 22%).

National Satisfaction Still Low

Despite changing perspectives on which economic problem is the greatest concern, the public’s overall assessment of national conditions has changed little. Just 22% of Americans say they are satisfied with the state of the nation, while 73% are dissatisfied.

This is significantly better than the historic lows in the immediate wake of the 2008 market crash; in October 2008 just 11% of Americans were satisfied while 86% were dissatisfied. Yet the current mood is on par with the lowest measures over the course of Obama’s term in office, and down substantially from the 34% who were satisfied with national conditions in May of 2009.

To the extent that the public’s mood has soured over the past two years, the shift has occurred mainly among Democrats. In May 2009, 44% of Democrats were satisfied with national conditions. That dropped to 35% by March 2010, and stands at just 25% today. About the same percentage of independents (24%) expresses positive views of national conditions, while Republicans are less upbeat (14%).

The partisan gap in national satisfaction today is comparable to previous time periods. As a rule, satisfaction is higher among members of the president’s party. Since 1990, Democrats were significantly more satisfied with national conditions than Republicans during both the Clinton and Obama administration, while Republicans were significantly more satisfied under both Bush administrations. Looking at yearly averages, the partisan gap reached a peak in 2004, when 65% of Republicans were satisfied, compared with just 17% of Democrats. So far in 2011, the partisan divide is much smaller: an average of 32% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans have expressed satisfaction during the first three months of this year.