Many Deem Big Cuts to Entitlements ‘Unacceptable,’ but Retirement and Means Testing Draw Support
WASHINGTON— Less than a quarter of Americans support making significant cuts to Social Security or Medicare to tackle the country’s mounting deficit, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, illustrating the challenge facing lawmakers who want voter buy-in to alter entitlement programs.
A new WSJ/NBC poll shows Americans do not approve of the government slashing Social Security and Medicaid to reduce the nation’s deficit. They also have a bleak economic outlook for 2011, but feel President Obama is handling the economy well.
In the poll, Americans across all age groups and ideologies said by large margins that it was “unacceptable” to make significant cuts in entitlement programs in order to reduce the federal deficit. Even tea party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security “unacceptable.”
At the same time, a majority supported two specific measures that lawmakers might employ to shore up the shaky finances of the main entitlement programs.
More than 60% of poll respondents supported reducing Social Security and Medicare payments to wealthier Americans. And more than half favored bumping the retirement age to 69 by 2075. The age to receive full benefits is 66 now and is scheduled to rise to 67 in 2027.
Depending on how they are structured, those two changes could eliminate as much as 60% of Social Security’s underfunding, according to experts. Support for the two ideas in the poll is “impressive,” said Chuck Blahous, one of the program’s public trustees and a former Bush administration official. “I wonder if [public] receptivity is increasing.”
The poll comes as Republican lawmakers, many elected on promises to slash federal spending, have focused mostly so far on cuts to non-defense, discretionary programs. But many political leaders say meaningful deficit reduction cannot be accomplished without making changes to entitlement programs.
A small group of senators in both parties has begun discussions that include changes to entitlement programs, as well as to the tax code. House Republicans say they will address entitlements in their next budget. And several likely 2012 GOP candidates have vowed to to shore up the finances of Social Security and Medicare as part of their campaigns.
But Republican Bill McInturff and Democrat Peter Hart, the pollsters who conducted the survey, said the poll raises warning signs for anyone proposing cuts to the three main entitlement programs, including Medicaid, that provide health and retirement benefits to seniors and the poor. The programs, which already make up 41% of federal spending, are expected to balloon in coming years.
Mr. McInturff called the poll “a huge flashing yellow sign for Republicans on how much preparation will be needed if they propose to change Social Security and Medicare.”
Asked directly if they thought cuts to Medicare were necessary to “significantly reduce” the deficit, 18% of respondents said yes, while 54% said no; the rest were not sure or had no opinion. On Social Security, 22% said cuts would be needed, while 49% said they weren’t.
The results cannot be compared easily to prior polling, but they suggest durability to the support for entitlement programs. In 1995, when Congress was considering cuts to Medicare, 36% said in a Journal/NBC poll that they supported a plan to cut Medicare spending and devote the money to deficit reduction. Some 52% called for maintaining Medicare at its existing level.
Overall, the new poll found deepening pessimism about the future of the economy and the country’s direction. Only 29% thought the economy would get better over the next year, a dip of 11 points since last month and the lowest since August. “This is a country that refuses to feel better,” said Mr. McInturff.
Mr. Obama’s own job approval dipped to 48%, from 53% last month, but was still higher than at any time since last May. Some 46% disapproved of his job performance. Mr. Hart, the Democratic pollster, said that until the unemployment rate dips significantly, “it is always going to be a struggle for the president to get majority support.”
As a snapshot of public opinion, the poll highlights some of the perils ahead for Republicans as their core voters and tea party supporters demand big reductions in federal spending to tame the deficit.
More than seven in 10 tea party backers feared GOP lawmakers would not go far enough in cutting spending. But at the same time, more than half of all Americans feared Republicans would go too far.
Among those most fearing spending cuts were younger voters, independents, seniors and suburban women—groups that include many swing voters in national elections, who potentially could turn against the GOP.
“It may be hard to understand why someone would try to jump off a cliff” to solve the debt crisis, Mr. McInturff said of his fellow Republicans, “unless you understand that they are being chased by a tiger, and that tiger is the tea party.”
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican House whip, said his party needs “to have a conversation with people” before moving forward on jarring changes to federal entitlement programs.Don Dunlap, an 82-year-old writer and Republican in Sunnyvale, Calif., is one of many voters who need some convincing. “We’re spending ourselves to oblivion—we haven’t seen a comparable level of spending since the Roosevelt era,” he said. “But Social Security is not the right place to trim the budget.”
“You don’t go out and lay out the solution without talking about the problem,” he told reporters at a Bloomberg News breakfast Wednesday.
Assessing the president’s position ahead of the 2012 election, the survey found Mr. Obama leading potential GOP challenger Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, 50% to 31%.
Mr. Obama led by a narrower 49% to 40% margin in a hypothetical match-up against Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a Republican candidate in 2008. When tested against an unnamed Republican running for president, Mr. Obama led 45% to 40%. Mr. McInturff said the finding contained warning signs for the president: Voters who remained uncommitted might be tough for the president to win, he said, as those voters disapproved of Mr. Obama’s job performance and believed the country was on the wrong track by large margins.
Four years after starting his effort to win national office, Mr. Romney is known by 80% of the public, with 25% saying they feel positively toward him and an equal 25% saying they have negative feelings toward him.
Amid the union protests in Wisconsin, the poll found that 62% of Americans oppose efforts to strip unionized government workers of their rights to collectively bargain, even as they want public employees to contribute more money to their retirement and health-care benefits.
The results suggest that public opinion may be tipping against Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker in his prolonged faceoff with the unions.