Americans want to cut federal spending but believe by a lopsided margin that the looming budget sequester is a poor way to do that, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
By 52 percent to 21 percent, the public calls the sequester a "bad idea" rather than a good one, the poll shows. Nor do Americans feel good about the way President Barack Obama and Congress are dealing with each other on the issue; by 51 percent to 16 percent, they say budget negotiations so far make them less confident about the economy.
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That doesn't mean Americans don't favor spending reductions: A 53-percent majority backs either the sequester or an alternative calling for more cuts.
And it doesn't mean Americans apportion blame for the stalemate equally. Days before the March 1 deadline, the survey shows that Obama has gained the upper hand, with a far stronger reputation than Republicans for seeking bi-partisan unity.
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The NBC/WSJ poll shows that 48 percent of Americans credit Obama with emphasizing unifying themes, compared to 43 percent who say he takes a partisan approach "that does not unify the country." By contrast, Americans by three to one say the Republican Party takes a partisan approach (64 percent) rather than a unifying one (22 percent).
A 49 percent plurality of Americans says the Democratic Party takes a partisan approach, outpacing the 37 percent who says Democrats emphasize unity. But the recently re-elected president's superior ability to attract attention to his message gives his party the edge in casting its approach to the looming March 1 budget "sequester" as one that aims at compromise.
The Republican Party's image problems extend across a wide range of issues. The poll shows Democrats with robust advantages on helping the middle class, handling Medicare, dealing with health care, reducing gun violence, dealing with Social Security and energy policy. Democrats have narrow advantages on several issues that once favored Republicans: immigration, taxes and the economy.
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"Republicans don't need a silver lining, they need a whole new playbook," said Fred Yang, one of the NBC/WSJ pollsters.
But Republicans retain a narrow edge on reducing the deficit, and strong advantages on controlling spending and ensuring a strong defense. And even though Obama retains a solid 50 percent job approval rating, the escalating battle in Washington has taken a toll on him, too.
The proportion of Americans who say the nation is headed in the wrong direction has declined to 32 percent from 41 percent in December. But that's hardly a ringing endorsement: Approval for Obama's handling of the economy has declined to 44 percent from 49 percent since January.
The telephone poll of 1,000 adults, conducted by the firms of Democratic pollster Peter Hart and his Republican counterpart Bill McInturff, took place Feb. 21-24. It carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.
—By CNBC's John Harwood; Follow him on Twitter: