Americans prefer letting tax cuts expire for the country's top earners, as President Barack Obama insists, while support has declined for cutting government services to curb budget deficits, an Associated Press-GfK poll shows. Fewer than half the Republicans polled favor continuing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.
There's also a reluctance to trim Social Security, Medicare or defense programs, three of the biggest drivers of federal spending, the survey released Wednesday found. The results could strengthen Obama's hand in his fiscal cliff duel with Republicans, in which he wants to raise taxes on the rich and cut spending by less than the GOP wants.
As Obama and Republicans joust over ways to avoid tumbling over the cliff when the new year begins, the poll offers scant evidence that the public is willing to sacrifice much when it comes to specific cuts in the name of budget austerity.
Social Security, Medicare and defense account for just over half the $3.8 trillion the government is projected to spend this year. Voters typically voice support for deficit reduction but shy away from painful, detailed cuts to achieve it.
In the poll, 48 percent said tax cuts should expire in January on earnings over $250,000 but continue for lower incomes. An additional 32 percent said the tax cuts should continue for everybody, which has been the view of Republican lawmakers who say raising taxes on the wealthy would squelch their ability to create jobs. Thirteen percent said the tax cuts dating back to 2001 and 2003 should end for all.
"If you are fortunate and have some extra, you need to help those who don't," said Robin Keck, 49, of Golden Valley, Minn., who owns a framing business and supports ending tax cuts for the rich. "I believe people who have more money generally find more uses for it than putting other people to work."
A November 2010 AP-CNBC poll showed similar support for allowing the cuts to expire for people with the largest incomes. Polling earlier in that year had shown a preference for continuing the cuts for everyone, including the wealthy.
Support for renewing the tax cuts for everyone has ebbed among Republicans since 2010, dropping from a high of 74 percent just after the GOP recaptured the House in that year's elections to 48 percent now. Among Democrats, support for allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire was a robust 61 percent, though down slightly from two years ago.
Unless the two parties strike a deal, the new year will begin with the triggering of broad spending cuts plus tax boosts on almost every taxpayer. Economists warn that the brew of sharp deficit cuts — nicknamed the fiscal cliff — could revive the recession.
The battle is occurring when the public trusts the two parties about equally to handle the deficits. Democrats have a slight edge on handling taxes but enjoy a much bigger preference when it comes to addressing Medicare, according to the poll.
Obama was re-elected last month insisting that taxes be raised on the rich as their contribution to deficit reduction. He has proposed continuing Bush-era tax cuts for all but the country's top earners, letting taxes rise on income exceeding $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for couples.
Though Republican lawmakers have long opposed raising taxes on the highest earners, GOP leaders have proposed curbing unspecified tax deductions to avert the fiscal cliff, raising revenue that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, says could come from upper-income people.
The new poll found that, by 46 percent to 30 percent, more favor cutting government services to raising taxes to tackle budget deficits. That sentiment echoes the view of the GOP, which has emphasized spending cuts during four years of budget battles with Obama.
Yet support for trimming government services has dropped in AP-GfK polls. It was 56 percent last February and 62 percent in March 2011.
Still, Ray Wilkins, 58, of Belton, Mo., a warehouse worker, said, "The government's gotten too big. The federal government tries to do just about everything."
Thirteen percent said budget balancing efforts should focus equally on service cuts and higher taxes, more than doubling that sentiment in previous polls.
When it comes to specifics, people are leery.
By 48 percent to 40 percent, more oppose proposals to gradually raise the eligibility age for Medicare from 65. Only 3 in 10 support slowing the growth of annual Social Security benefits. And more people oppose than favor cutting military spending.
Sentiments about culling savings from Social Security and Medicare were similar among Democrats and Republicans. The strongest opposition to raising the Medicare eligibility age came from people ages 30 to 64. People 50 to 64 were most opposed to slowing the growth of Social Security benefits.
Just over half of Democrats favor cutting defense; two-thirds of Republicans oppose it.
People were about evenly split over an idea voiced by defeated GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to put a dollar limit on taxpayers' deductions.
Another idea — ending the tax deduction for home mortgage interest in exchange for lower income tax rates — was favored 42 percent to 33 percent, slightly less support than the proposal received in 2010. Homeowners were closely divided over the proposal.
Just over half the poll respondents say they doubt Obama will be able to reduce budget deficits during his remaining four years in office. In his first days in office in 2009, more people than not thought he would be able to do so.
The poll found little change in the nation's partisan makeup after the contentious presidential election campaign, with 33 percent saying they consider themselves Democrats, 23 percent Republicans and 27 percent independents. That's about the same as in AP-GfK polling over the past six months.
The Associated Press-GfK poll was conducted Nov. 29 to Dec. 3 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,002 adults nationwide. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.
AP news survey specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.