Bipartisanship on the Stimulus: Clean Power and… Um…

Jan 26, 2009 12:06pm

When it comes to stimulus spending, bipartisanship starts with alternative energy.

The problem: It also pretty much ends there.

Clean power is a perennial favorite in public opinion – it sounds, well, clean, and a welcome respite from that longtime bugbear, foreign oil. When we asked priorities for stimulus spending in our latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, top place went to the proposal to double the production of alternative energy in the next three years.

Forty-one percent of Americans said that should be a “highest priority” item in stimulus spending. Most striking is its level of bipartisan support: Forty-two percent of Democrats, 41 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of independents assigned it top priority.

That’s a nice result for President Obama as his administration announces environmental initiatives today – he’s ordering a review of EPA rules on auto emission standards and Hillary Clinton is naming a State Department point man on climate change. But as is almost always the case in politics and policy, life quickly gets more complicated.

First off, climate change is not the public’s most pressing concern, by a long shot. Just 17 percent in our poll say it should receive the highest-level priority from Obama and the Congress, last on the list of 11 items we tested, and down from 26 percent in 2006. One reason is the elephant in the room: Seventy-six percent give top-level priority to the economy, toasting every other issue we tested.

This turns the discussion to priorities specifically for stimulus spending. And here the bipartisan agreement we see on alternative energy quickly melts away.

The very next item on this list is the single most partisan of all – extending unemployment benefits and health care coverage for people who lose their jobs. Overall 38 percent give this a highest-level priority for stimulus spending – but that ranges from 52 percent of Democrats to just 21 percent of Republicans, a 31-point chasm.

Indeed Republicans didn’t love many of the recovery package items. Apart from the alternative energy proposal, no more than 22 percent of Republicans give a top-shelf rating to any of the dozen stimulus items we tested. That’s not surprising, since Republicans don’t love stimulus spending at all; as I’ve noted previously, 58 percent in the GOP say it’s more important to avoid a sharp increase in the federal deficit than to try to improve the economy by raising federal spending. Sixty-two percent of Democrats disagree, which sets the stage for some of the big gaps in stimulus priorities we see. Examples:

-Twenty-nine percent of Democrats give a top priority to providing aid to the states in order to avoid cuts in state services. Only 7 percent of Republicans agree.

-Thirty-eight percent of Democrats (and in this case, independents alike) give a top priority to upgrading schools with new technology. Among Republicans, it’s 18 percent, a 20-point drop-off.

-Thirty-eight percent of Democrats are hot for rebuilding roads, bridges and schools; among Republicans, it’s 21 percent.

Also noteworthy – though also not surprising, given longtime public preferences – is the tepid interest in tax cuts. Just 23 percent overall give a highest-level priority to a $500 tax cut for most working Americans, and here the partisan gap narrows – 26 percent of Democrats give it a top priority, as do 19 percent of  Republicans. On a business tax cut, it’s 17 percent overall – 22 percent among Republicans, 13 percent among Democrats. (Tax cuts long have been less in demand than is commonly assumed. Ask President Dole.)

The partisan gap does narrow further on three other items, but mainly because they’re among the lowest-priority proposals for all concerned – upgrading the power grid, computerizing medical records and, last on the list, expanding high-speed internet access to rural areas.

Among all Americans, the items with the top highest-priority mentions are alternative energy (as noted, 41 percent), extending unemployment and health care (38 percent), upgrading schools (33 percent) and rebuilding infrastructure (30 percent).  Next, at 23 to 26 percent “highest priority,” are improving energy efficiency in homes and offices (with a 14-point partisan gap), putting a moratorium on home foreclosures (a 15-point partisan gap) and the personal tax cut. See the full list below, including a partisan comparison.

As noted, fixing the economy is the public’s overwhelming demand of Washington today, and suggestions that people will be patient with the process are hardly a sure bet. (Ronald Reagan, greeted by recession toward the start of his presidency, lost 25 points in approval in his first two years in office. See the chart.) The data in this note provide a counterpoint: While the public is united in demanding economic solutions, it’s far less united on just what those solutions should be.

                                  ABC/Post 1/16/09                               “Highest” priority for                                   stimulus spending                                 All   Dem  Rep  IndDoubling the production of  alternative energy in the   next three years                41%  42%  41%  40%Extending unemployment insurance   and health care coverage for   people who lose their jobs      38   52   21   40Upgrading schools with new  technology                      33   38   18   38Rebuilding roads, bridges and  schools                         30   38   21   29Improving energy efficiency in  homes and offices               26   31   17   26Putting a moratorium on home  mortgage foreclosures           24   30   15   25Giving most working Americans  a 500-dollar tax cut            23   26   19   24Giving federal money to states  to avoid cuts in state services 18   29    7   14Updating power lines and the   system that distributes  electricity around the country  17   19   15   16Cutting taxes paid by   businesses and corporations     17   13   22   17Computerizing all Americans'   medical records in the next  five years                      14   15   12   16Expanding high-speed internet  access to rural areas            7    7    5    6
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