In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama called for “painful cuts,” saying he was willing to “eliminate whatever we can honestly do without.” Next week the President will unveil the new budget and articulate exactly what services and programs will be impacted.
The decision of what should be cut is complex and fraught with partisanship. The president made it clear in his speech that he does not want the cuts to be made “on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens,” citing education and investment as critical to the future of the nation.
He did, however, name domestic spending, defense spending, health care spending, and spending through tax breaks and loopholes, calling out even Medicare and Medicaid, and riffing on bureaucratic redundancies (remember that salmon line?) as another siphon of federal dollars.
A number of polls have looked to the people to try to divine where Americans would most support belt-tightening. The New York Times made a game in which readers could try their own hand at balancing the budget. Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor launched the “YouCut” website, which invites constituents to vote their favorite of a given three budget cut choices. CBS and The New York Times conducted polling to find out what the will of those with a landline telephone might be.
Results appear pretty mixed. On Wednesday, the House passed legislation to eliminate public campaign financing, which made it to the floor based on the results of the YouCut site. The Times’ game users overwhelmingly supported cutting military spending by reducing the military to less than pre-Iraq war size. The CBS New York Times poll found the most support for cuts to the military as well, with 55 percent preferring that option over the next most popular (at 21 percent) of cutting Medicaid. The majority expected it not to be necessary to have their taxes raised, but that it would be necessary to cut back on programs from which they benefitted. Yet when asked how to deal with future Medicare shortfalls, an overwhelming 64 percent chose raising taxes over reducing benefits.
So what do the American people really want? Do we want the cuts to come from the military? Should cutting public campaign financing (a comparably much smaller number) be part of the mix? Are we just hopelessly divided along partisan lines?
Perhaps, but you can't make that conclusion by comparing these two sites. The respondents to the Times game appear to lean left and respondents to the YouCut site appear to lean right, but the way in which the two polls asked the question also led respondents towards different answers.
The purpose of The Times game was to balance the budget. The size of the cuts matter when you're trying to get to get out of the red, so eliminating earmarks and special projects just aren't enough . It allows participants to chose from a wide array of options favored by both the left and the right — and it also gives the option of raising taxes. But it is just a game, so it gives the impression of being inconsequential — a diverting intellectual exercise that, while interesting, is unlikely to influence policy in any way.
The YouCut website, on the other hand, is definitely designed to give users the impression that they are directly influencing legislation. Users vote by cell phone or on-line, and winners are tallied weekly. “Each week that the House is in session” the site promises, “we will take the winning item and offer it to the full House for an up-or-down vote.” Yet participants are only allowed to vote on one item from a choice of three wildly different options. This week, for example, the site offers users a choice of cutting $10 million by eliminating the Department of Education’s Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural Program, or $87.5 million by eliminating the Department of Education’s Exchanges with Historic Whaling and Trading Partners, or saving a whopping $520 million by ending the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. Given that one would have to cut the Underground Railroad Program fifty-two times over (sorry Harriet Tubman), and that the other two programs directly fund educational projects, it is, perhaps, not that surprising that public campaign financing was the front-runner.
The president may be in for a rough battle no matter what. The New York Times and CBS poll found that while 77 percent of respondents think that he will try to work with Republicans to get things done, only 46 percent believe that Republicans will try to work with him.
Perhaps the poll provides the best insight into what the public really wants. Cutting the size of the military, reducing entitlement payments to the higher-income recipients, and limiting mortgage interest deductions are the most popular options for reducing the deficit. Tellingly, the poll also shows that recipients are largely in favor of cutting services, but not those services they use, and not raising taxes, unless those taxes prevent cuts to the services.