STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
We've arrived at an easy moment to blame politicians. The government is running a deficit expected to be $1.6 trillion this fiscal year. Debate has begun over how to bring deficits down. Republicans, for example, have proposed cutting funding for needy women, infants and children. The White House budget includes a plan to slash low-income heating subsidies. And we've heard warnings of fiscal disaster if we don't act.
So it's easy to blame our elected officials, though surveys remind us of an underlying reality: We elected them, and most voters want more government than we're willing to pay for.
Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.
SCOTT HORSLEY: Budget-cutting proposals are bumper-to-bumper these days. But even as he proposes cuts in some areas, President Obama wants to spend more federal money to update and improve the country's over-stretched roads and bridges.
(Soundbite of a traffic report)
Unidentified Man: The delays that you expect between the Beltway and 50/Fair Oaks.
HORSLEY: Traffic-weary commuters can only honk in support when the president calls for stepped up investment in infrastructure, as he did in Michigan last week.
President BARACK OBAMA: If we want new jobs and businesses here in America, we've got to have the best transportation system and the best communication network in the world. It's like that movie, "Field of Dreams." You know, if we build it, they will come.
(Soundbite of laughter)
President OBAMA: But we've got to build it.
HORSLEY: A survey for the Rockefeller Foundation found overwhelming support for infrastructure investment. Pollster Jay Campbell, who conducted the survey, says that backing cuts across party lines.
Mr. JAY CAMPBELL (Pollster): In a time and place when Republicans almost pride themselves on disagreeing with everything that President Obama stands for, 66 percent of Republicans said that they agreed with this approach.
HORSLEY: But even the most ardent supporters of highway spending hit the brakes when pollsters started asking if they'd be willing to help pay for it.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Where support did start to drop off, and did so quite dramatically, is when voters themselves are asked to help foot the bill.
HORSLEY: Survey respondents rejected the idea of paying for roads with higher gasoline taxes, by a better than two-to-one margin. Additional toll charges were almost as unpopular.
In other words: If you build it, Americans will come, so long as they don't have to pay for it.
Mr. CAMPBELL: The overarching problem is people want everything to change, and they want nothing to change at the same time. It puts elected leaders in a really tough position.
HORSLEY: For years now, elected leaders have dealt with that challenge by indulging Americans' desire for services without trying to collect. That's one reason we're now staring at a $1.6 trillion deficit.
While Congressional Republicans are proposing dramatic cuts in discretionary spending, most Americans are hard-pressed to identify specific parts of the government they're willing to do without. A survey by the Pew Research Center found the only government program where there's anything close to a cutting consensus is foreign aid.
Mr. CARROLL DOHERTY (Association Director, Pew Research Center): Foreign aid is the least popular aspect of the budget, typically. And you see that in this survey, as well.
HORSLEY: That's Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center.
Mr. DOHERTY: But even here, you still get less than 50 percent saying cut it. And, you know, it's not overwhelming, even though that's the largest area on our list.
HORSLEY: Doherty says for the most popular programs - like Medicare and education - only about one in 10 people favor cuts.
Still, there are some signs the growing deficit is making people more careful what they wish for. Fewer survey respondents now ask for more government spending in areas like defense and health care than did just two years ago.
Mr. DOHERTY: I think it's a recognition that the government can't spend as it has been. I think that's sinking in on the public. But taking that next step and really applying the knife to these programs is a more difficult thing.
HORSLEY: So when political leaders seem timid about cutting the biggest government programs or asking people to pay more for them, they're simply taking their cues from the people who elected them.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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