Opinion Polls Track Response to President Obama's Budget

Opinion polls do a good job of predicting who will win elections, but they typically have a harder time tracking public opinion on complex political issues.

The 2010 budget proposed by President Obama offers an instructive example. Most well-known polls have shied away from asking the obvious question: Do you approve or disapprove of the President’s budget? Their reluctance to ask this question is understandable. The federal budget is so large and so complex that it doesn’t lend itself to a simple thumbs up or thumbs down verdict. Rather than asking about the budget itself, a number of polls have asked about an issue that many people find easier to understand: the budget deficit.

Doubts About the Deficit
President Obama’s proposed budget calls for $3.8 trillion in spending with a deficit of $1.56 trillion. By way of comparison, the 2009 budget had a deficit of $1.41 trillion. Obama predicts that the deficit will peak in 2010 and will begin to decline the following year as the economy recovers. How do Americans feel about these astronomical numbers? More than a little uncomfortable.

The public’s opinion of the way the President is handling the deficit has taken a significant turn for the worse in the past year. According to polls conducted for CNN, in March of 2009, 52% of the public approved of the President’s approach to the deficit while 47% disapproved. When asked the same question in January 2010, 36% approved of the President’s performance on the deficit and 62% disapproved. Only 2% expressed no opinion.

More Debt or More Taxes?
Despite concern about the deficit, a plurality of people believe that the projected deficit is acceptable if it means taxes can be reduced. In a recent Rasmussen poll, 41% of respondents would rather have higher deficits and lower taxes than a balanced budget and tax increases. A slightly smaller proportion, 36%, would rather see a balanced budget and higher taxes. And 23% are not sure which is better.

Opinions about this trade-off show some correlation with political ideology. Among people who consider themselves conservatives, 50% are willing to accept higher deficits if taxes are cut. Among people who consider themselves liberals, 63% favor raising taxes to achieve a balanced budget.

But are higher taxes the only way to balance the budget? In the same poll, 37% of respondents said that the budget can be balanced without tax increases, but 42% disagreed, saying that a balanced budget is not possible without higher taxes. Again these views show some correlation with ideology. Among Republicans, 47% believe that it is possible to balance the budget without raising taxes, while 53% of Democrats believe it is not.

Do It Yourself Polling
Large national polls like these are widely reported and discussed in the media, but political polling is no longer restricted to a handful of well-funded organizations. Online survey software, makes it possible for smaller groups to conduct their own polls. Local news organizations, advocacy groups, and other do-it-yourselfers are using online surveys to take their own reading of the public’s pulse.

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