April 20, 2011 -- Americans strongly reject Medicare cuts and broadly support higher taxes on the wealthy, underscoring the political risks in Republican debt-reduction plans. And on one key factor in the debate -- protecting the middle class -- President Obama retains the upper hand.
Those and other results from the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll underscore the hazards of the federal spending debate for Republicans as well as for Obama. As poorly as the president is rated for handling the deficit -- just 39 percent approve -- the Republican leaders in Congress do a bit worse, with just 33 percent approval on the same issue.
Similarly, while just 42 percent approve of Obama's handling of the economy overall, fewer still, 34 percent, approve of how the Republicans in Congress are dealing with it. And the public by a 12-point margin trusts Obama to protect middle-class Americans, a theme he's likely to sound loudly and often as the 2012 election campaign warms up.
The poll, conducted for ABC News by Langer Research Associates, finds that 65 percent of Americans oppose changing Medicare to a system in which the government would give seniors vouchers with which to buy private insurance. Opposition was essentially the same in a Kaiser Family Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health survey when the idea came up 15 years ago.
The Republican budget plan includes what's been widely described in news reports as a voucher or voucher-like system, though its author, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, has maintained that it's not a voucher system, because subsidies would go directly to insurance companies, from which seniors could pick from a menu of plans.
The language may matter, in that even most Republicans, 56 percent, oppose Medicare vouchers, as do more than seven in 10 Democrats. And opposition soars to 84 percent of all Americans, including nearly three-quarters of Republicans, if government payments failed to meet the full cost of seniors' insurance coverage.
Most Americans also differ with the dictum of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House speaker, who ruled out tax increases to cut the deficit last week, saying, "Washington does not have a revenue problem. Washington has a spending problem." In this poll, instead, 59 percent favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases (or, for 3 percent, higher taxes alone) to address the deficit. Fewer, 36 percent, back spending cuts alone, though that is up 5 points from last month, chiefly among wealthier and very conservative Americans, two comparatively tax-adverse groups.
CUT? -- And what to cut is hardly a simple matter. Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and military spending consume nearly two-thirds of federal spending. But 78 percent in this survey oppose cuts in Medicare in order to address the federal debt (indeed 65 percent "strongly" oppose it); 69 percent oppose cuts in Medicaid, the insurance program for the poor (52 percent strongly); and fewer, but still 56 percent, oppose cutting military spending.
Far more popular is taxing people perceived as being most able to pay: Seventy-two percent support achieving debt-reduction by raising taxes on people with household incomes more than $250,000 a year. That again counters the GOP position, and works for Obama, who last week ruled out another extension of tax cuts for better-off Americans.
Ninety-one percent of Democrats favor higher taxes on better-off Americans -- but so do 68 percent of independents, the crucial political center, and, in fact, 54 percent of Republicans. Support for raising taxes on the wealthy falls below a majority in only a few groups, e.g., people who call themselves "very" conservative, conservative Republicans and strong supporters of the Tea Party political movement.
Indeed Obama now holds a slight 47-42 percent advantage over the Republicans in Congress in trust to handle taxes, after an essentially even split in December and January. And he leads by a wider margin, 51-39 percent, in terms of "protecting the middle class."
In all this, there may be some room for the "shared sacrifice" mooted in Washington. If a package "significantly" reduced the federal debt and included a "small" tax increase for all Americans and "small" cuts in Medicare and Social Security benefits, opposition eases, albeit to a still-majority 53 percent, with 45 percent support. Support spikes among young adults, to 62 percent. However, intensity of sentiment pushes back: Strong opponents to this notion outnumber strong supporters by 2-1, 40 percent to 19 percent.
Compromise nonetheless can be popular; a bipartisan 59 percent support the budget agreement that avoided a government shutdown the week before last -- although that is tepid, with just 18 percent "strong" support.
ADVANTAGE? -- While Obama holds a small lead on taxes and a larger one on protecting the middle class, there are close divisions on related issues. The president and the Republicans in Congress score about evenly, 45-44 percent, in trust to find the right balance between cutting spending that's not needed and continuing programs that are needed. And it's 42-46 percent, a numerical GOP advantage, in trust overall to deal with the national debt, despite differences in how to do that.
Obama has an advantage on another gauge, ideological positioning. Forty-eight percent of Americans say he's "about right" ideologically on most issues. Fewer, 37 percent, say the same of the Republican leaders in Congress.
The number of Americans who call Obama "too liberal" on most issues has eased by 6 points since September, to 39 percent, declining by 9 points among independents and moderates alike. And while he's gotten some criticism recently from liberal groups, just 8 percent call him "too conservative," essentially unchanged.
It's the Republicans, instead, who have more trouble on their flank -- not only do 40 percent call them "too conservative," but 18 percent call them "too liberal" -- including a third of very conservative Americans and more than a quarter of strong Tea Party supporters.
The public by a narrow 45-40 percent also says the Republicans in Congress currently are taking the stronger leadership role in Washington. Many more said so about the Democrats in April 2007 and the Republicans in April 1995, but then the parties were newly in control of the House and Senate alike, not solely the House, as now.
In any case, especially given the sour economic mood, no one in Washington's wearing a halo. The Republicans in Congress have a 34 percent approval rating overall; the Democrats in Congress are right alongside them at 36 percent. Both are less popular than Obama, with his 47 percent job approval rating, itself a single point from his career low.
Boehner, personally, does better than his party overall, with 43 percent approval for his work; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, lags, with 33 percent approval.
SNIT -- These kinds of ratings mark not only the political hazards of deficit-reduction, but the public's sour mood more generally, fueled by the still-difficult economy. As noted, as weak as Obama is on the economy, approval of the Republicans in Congress on this critical issue is weaker still.
The key reason: disproportionate defections in the GOP base. Democrats are staying loyal to Obama; 75 percent approve of his handling of the economy. Among Republicans, though, many fewer, 58 percent, approve of their party's economic performance. That makes the economy -- certain to be a central issue in the 2012 presidential campaign -- a knife that cuts both ways.
This ABC News-Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 14-17, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points.
The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.