Approaching the cliff

Voters often approach policy issues from a very different angle than do Washington elites. So it is with the fiscal cliff.

Everyone thinks the debt and deficit are serious. Everyone thinks the problem should be fixed. The differences emerge on the “how.” While Washington fixates on which programs to cut and which taxes to hike, voters are focused on growing the economy as a means of deficit reduction. 


The first evidence of the mismatched priorities comes in response to a question we recently posed to a sample of 1,000 2012 voters nationwide. By more than 2 to 1, voters would rather see Congress and the president focus on creating jobs (67 percent) than on reducing the deficit (29 percent). Again, that’s not to say Americans don’t care about deficit reduction, it’s to say they care even more about creating jobs. Interestingly, that priority extends across partisanship as majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans all prefer a focus on job creation over deficit reduction. 

More to the point, given a choice among three options, a 53 percent majority wants the government to “increase taxes on the wealthiest, invest in job creation, and protect priorities like Medicare, Social Security and education” — very different from the plans now being contemplated. By contrast, only 23 percent would “leave taxes alone and cut spending on major programs like Medicare, Social Security and education.” Nineteen percent prefer to “increase taxes on the wealthiest and cut spending” on those programs.

In contrast to D.C. experts, voters reject the view that Medicare, Social Security or education needs to be trimmed in order to reduce the deficit. Large majorities believe deficit reduction can be achieved without cutting Social Security (86 percent), Medicare (78 percent), education (84 percent) or federal funding for local police and firefighters (83 percent). 

With voters fully supportive of these programs, and unconvinced of the need to reduce spending in these areas in order to tame the deficit, they overwhelmingly reject cutting them, even when deficit reduction is the stated goal. Eighty-nine percent oppose cutting nursing home aid for the elderly covered by Medicaid. A similarly massive 87 percent oppose cutting Social Security benefits. Eighty-three percent oppose cuts to health insurance for kids covered by Medicaid, while 82 percent oppose cutting federal funding for K-12 education and 80 percent oppose Medicare cuts. Seventy-five percent also oppose cutting Medicaid, while 74 percent oppose cutting federal funding for college financial aid and student loans, and 62 percent oppose ending emergency unemployment benefits. 

Americans believe cutting these programs will kill rather than create jobs — and recall, job creation is their highest priority. Half the electorate believes cuts in these areas will cost jobs, while only 16 percent foresee more jobs resulting from reduced spending on these priorities. 

So what’s the public’s answer to the debt problem? First and foremost, in the immediate term, it goes back to investing in job creation. We offered voters two alternatives. One argued for spending cuts, suggesting that a “liberal, tax-and-spend, big-government approach to economics where we constantly increase spending beyond our means and finance it by borrowing from China is the wrong way to go and is at the root of our economic problems.” Just 24 percent of Americans associated themselves with that viewpoint. Seventy percent maintained that “The best way to improve the economy is to put more people to work, which will put more money in the Treasury, thereby reducing the deficit, while also giving the middle class what they need to succeed.”

Short of making those job-creating investments, voters would “increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans” rather than “cut programs like education, Social Security, Medicare and public safety” by a 32-point margin.

While Washington debates how to cut spending, Americans want a plan to create jobs.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.