President Obama and company have been beating the drum about the supposed coming disasters of sequestration, but Americans aren’t buying it. Proof: a poll out from ABC news today reveals that the vast majority of Americans are just fine with budget cuts. At the same time, most are not in favor of military cuts, indicating they’d like to see the money come from other places. Some of the numbers:
The public by nearly 2-1, 61-33 percent, supports cutting the overall budget along the lines of the sequester that took effect last Friday. But by nearly an identical margin, Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll oppose an eight percent across-the-board cut in military spending.
These views come before the $85 billion in cuts this year have taken hold, leaving open the question of how the public will respond once the reductions hit home. Nonetheless, the results suggest that warnings about the nation’s military readiness have resonated, while the public is more skeptical about the damage the sequester poses to federal programs more generally.
Support for a five percent reduction in federal spending crosses party lines in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates; it includes 57 percent of Democrats, six in 10 independents and three-quarters of Republicans. Shaving eight percent off the military budget, on the other hand, is opposed by 73 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of independents, with Democrats split down the middle.
Now, before we all start celebrating, there are a few matters of note. The ABC article also points out that, in a similar poll conducted during the height of fiscal cliff hysteria, Americans were largely opposed to cuts to some of the most expensive programs we run (including Social Security).
However, a December ABC/Post poll during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations found that majorities didn’t want to cut military spending in order to reach a budget agreement. (Most also opposed cutting Medicare, which also is hit by sequestration, and Medicaid and Social Security, which are spared the sequestration cuts.)
Of course, such programs comprise the bulk of the untenably high spending that Americans would like to see reduced; it’s a costly paradox, as making a real dent in the amount the government spends will require reforming some of these programs Americans apparently hold sacred.
In a similar vein, Matt Yglesias over at Slate calls this poll “deeply misleading,” on the grounds that people tend to favor overall cuts, but when it comes down to deciding what specific areas TO cut, they’re more cautious. In other words, he feels that if the individual programs had been extended beyond simply military cuts, people would have said they were opposed to those, too.
Long story short, public opinion on budgetary matters is poorly structured and there isn't a clear and internally consistent policy agenda that you can read from the polls. So if you constructed any ABC-style poll where you first ask about spending cuts and then ask about one particular program, you'd get the ABC result that people want big spending cuts but also want to exempt Program X from the cuts. But that's just a kind of cheap trick. Relative to other programs, cuts to military spending are among the least-unpopular cuts around.
So he takes issue with the idea that Americans want cuts, but not from the military—of course, as he says himself, it’s hard to read the data and find a coherent policy mandate regarding any cuts.
To that end, then, it remains to be seen if the cuts that are about to take effect are as palpably felt—or objected to—as the administration has said they will be. Despite claims that airport lines would double and teachers would be immediately laid off, neither has happened (or in the case of the teachers, certainly not as a result of sequestration).
For all the hype about a 5% budget cut, it’s a pretty small amount compared to the deficit. Who knows? We may find that talking about cuts is more painful than actually executing them. And so long as your airport waiting time isn’t abnormally long, who’s to say you’ll notice?