Congressional Republicans face a serious risk of political backlash from pressing their budget-cutting agenda at a time when Americans are more concerned about jobs, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll has found.
The survey shows Republicans in Washington caught between powerful opposing forces: demands from the Tea Party right for spending cuts to reduce the budget deficits, and fears by crucial swing voter groups that cuts would harm them amid anxiety over the weak economy.
Those pressing hardest for spending cuts represent "an incredibly powerful but small ideological part of our electorate," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducts the NBC/WSJ survey with Democratic counterpart Peter Hart.
To the peril of Republican politicians, their priorities collide squarely with the concerns of younger voters, senior citizens, independents and suburban women whom the GOP needs to win elections. Mr. McInturff called that "a huge flashing yellow sign for Republicans" in their pending showdown with the White House and Congressional Democrats, but wasn't sure his party would heed it.
"It may be hard to understand why someone would jump off a cliff," explained Mr. McInturff, who advised the 2008 campaign of Republican presidential nominee John McCain, "unless you understand they were being chased by a tiger. That tiger is the Tea Party."
That encouraging news for Democrats is not reflected in assessments of President Obama's job performance, which has receded after the boost he received from his handlings of the Tucson shootings in January. Mr. Obama's job approval rating in the survey was 48 percent, down from 53 percent in the previous NBC/WSJ poll.
Rather, it comes in the public's gloomy assessment of the economy and the different ways the two parties are reacting to it.
Just 29 percent expect the economy to get better within the next 12 months — the lowest proportion in six months. A solid 56 percent majority rates job creation and economic growth a top priority, outpacing the 40 percent who rate deficit reduction that way.
And by 51 percent to 46 percent, a majority says government should do more rather than that government is doing too many things. That's the first time since the beginning of Mr. Obama's term that a majority said government should do more.
House Republicans have made spending less their top priority, and have vowed that their forthcoming budget will curb the costly federal entitlement programs, which include Medicare and Social Security.
The survey shows how hazardous that pledge could be. By 54 percent to 18 percent, Americans say cuts in Medicare are not necessary to curb the deficit. By 49 percent to 22 percent, they say cuts in Social Security are not needed.
The poll shows Democrats on solid ground on other budget hot-buttons. Some 56 percent call cuts in the Head Start programs "mostly" or "totally unacceptable"; 77 percent say that of cuts to primary and secondary education. Majorities also call cuts unacceptable in national defense, unemployment insurance, college loans, and heating assistance to low-income families.
At the same, 81 percent call it "totally" or "mostly acceptable" to place a surtax on incomes over one million dollars, while 68 percent say the same of ending the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year.
The survey also provides encouragement for Democrats in their fight with Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. While strong majorities back freezing the pay of public employees and requiring them to contribute more for pensions and health insurance, American side with the unions on collective bargaining rights.
Mr. Walker has proposed allowing state employee unions to bargain only over wages, not pensions and health benefits. But in the poll, 77 percent of Americans said public employee unions should have the same right to bargain over such matters as private sector unions.
The telephone survey of 1,000 adults was conducted Feb. 24-28, and carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.