Poll Responses Call Budget Debate 'Ridiculous,' 'Messy'

Regardless of political affiliation, most respondents to a Pew Research Center poll gave poor marks to Congress and the White House on the federal budget negotiations. Host Liane Hansen talks to Andy Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, about the latest polling on the federal budget.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

For more on the public's reaction to the federal budget deal, we're joined in our studio by Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. ANDREW KOHUT (President, Pew Research Center): Happy to be with you, Liane.

HANSEN: During and right after the budget negotiations, Pew conducted a poll asking respondents to characterize the negotiations in one word. What was the most common response?

Mr. KOHUT: It was ridiculous followed by disgusting. And 84 percent of the words that people used that weekend in this poll we did with the Washington Post were of that order - a very, very negative reaction to this process.

HANSEN: Well, was that reaction aimed at one party or one person?

Mr. KOHUT: I think it's fire on both. The public has looked at the president and looked at Republican congressional leaders and they were prepared to blame them both equally if the government had shut down, and I think neither of them came away with a lot of plaudits, either from the swing voters or from the base.

HANSEN: Do Americans think the Tea Party activists influenced the budget debate, I mean, for better or for worse?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, I think it depends upon who you ask. I'm sure that Democrats and maybe even some Independents do. Many Republicans would welcome that influence. The Tea Party is an important element of Republican politics these days.

HANSEN: How concerned really is the American public about the federal budget and the deficit?

Mr. KOHUT: They're very much concerned about the deficit. The deficit has grown in stature. It's one of the top problems the president and the Congress have to deal with each year. In recent years, we get more and more people saying it should be a top priority. But it's still not the only priority. Jobs and now rising prices get more mentions of we should deal with this first.

But the deficit and concerns about the growing federal debt are very real. It's not just among Republicans - it's among Democrats and Independents. Of course, there's no consensus as to what to do here but there is a consensus that there is a problem.

HANSEN: Are Americans averse to tax raises to reduce the deficit?

Mr. KOHUT: Well, it depends on how you ask the question. If you say, what should we do: should we raise taxes or cut programs or both, the people say it should be a combination of both. But when you take people through the various alternatives, 67 percent say they're opposed to raising taxes. That's a pretty big number. It's as large as the number who say let's not mess around with Social Security and Medicare.

The most popular approach conceptually - and I want to emphasize conceptually -is lowering domestic spending, making cuts to the domestic programs. But there is a catch there too.

HANSEN: The catch?

Mr. KOHUT: The catch is when you test specific programs to be cut, the public says, well, I want to cut programs but let's not tax employer-provided health insurance benefits, let's not raise the retirement age and let's not trim Social Security benefits, and for this, that or the other thing. There's a lot of reservations about specific cuts.

HANSEN: One of your surveys earlier this month showed the public giving President Obama very low marks for his handling of the budget deficit. Has there been any change in response to the president's speech this past Wednesday?

Mr. KOHUT: I haven't seen any post-negotiation polling on the deficit. I did just see a new Gallup poll, which shows the president's approval rating's falling back a bit. Could be related to this; could be related to Libya, which is not particularly popular. I wouldn't be surprised if the president has taken somewhat of a hit. Many Democrats may be a little less enthusiastic with him and I don't think he's going to get many credits from Republicans.

HANSEN: On Friday, the House passed a budget plan, particularly based on Paul Ryan's budget proposal, for example, for Medicare and Medicaid to be given as block grants, and others $6 trillion. Has there been any reaction to that plan?

Mr. KOHUT: I think it's a little bit early for reaction. We did some concept testing back in September with the National Journal in a poll on Republican approaches and we found that reactions to the voucher concept, which is what Paul Ryan is proposing - that Medicare recipients would get some benefit credit that they would apply to purchasing private insurance. That's a non-starter. Most people, 52 percent, told us they opposed it; 32 percent said they favor. And in all fairness, they hadn't heard about it. We were just testing an idea.

I think it's the kind of idea, knowing what we know about people's commitment to Medicare, that is not going to test any better than the concept when people have heard about it.

HANSEN: Andrew Kohut is president of the Pew Research Center. Thanks for coming in.

Mr. KOHUT: You're very welcome.

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