Obama says 80 percent of public backs his debt ceiling option. Really?

Obama said Friday that 80 percent of Americans back a combination of spending cuts and new tax revenue to whittle the US deficit and end the debt ceiling crisis. Not according to polls.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Barack Obama walks away from the podium after talking about the ongoing budget negotiations following a news conference, on July 15, in the briefing room of the White House.

President Obama made an arresting statement Friday, in an effort to nudge Republicans to reconsider their opposition to tax increases.

"You have 80 percent of the American people who support a balanced approach," to reduce federal deficits with new tax revenue as well as spending cuts, Mr. Obama said in a press conference. "That’s not just Democrats," he emphasized. "That’s [also] the majority of Republicans."

Is he right?

Technically, no, according to recent polls tracked by the Polling Report website.

The president is correct that most Americans, when asked how to solve America's budget problems, opt for a mixed approach rather than all spending cuts or all tax hikes.

But it's hard to find a poll where the tally in favor of a blended approach reaches 80 percent – and it's possible that the share of Republicans who lean that way is lower than 50 percent.

So Obama can point to public opinion as a kind of arrow in his quiver, but Americans aren't embracing his views by an 80-to-20 margin over Republicans.

Here's what the polls say.

The survey Obama appeared to be referencing in his comment was by Gallup, released Wednesday. US adults were asked how they'd like to see Congress tackle federal deficits.

At one end of the spectrum, 20 percent opted for "only with spending cuts." At the other end, 4 percent said "only with tax hikes." And 69 percent voiced support for something in between – mostly for either an equal mix of tax hikes and spending cuts (32 percent) or a blend emphasizing "mostly spending cuts" (30 percent).

Take note, Mr. President, that was 69 percent, not 80 percent. And it's not clear that 69 percent would rally around any specific deficit-reduction plan.

But the poll may also ring an alarm for Republican lawmakers.

Among adults who identified themselves as Republicans, just 26 percent called for addressing deficits "only with spending cuts."

That's a big contrast with Republicans elected to the US House of Representatives, who stand almost uniformly against boosting tax revenue as part of the solution.

Some 24 percent of Republicans in the poll called for an equal mix of tax hikes and spending cuts, while 41 percent opted to do the job "mostly with spending cuts."

At the very least, Republican voters aren't as rigidly aligned on the tax issue as the politicians of their party are.

Still, polls don't suggest Republicans line up squarely behind Obama on the debt ceiling and taxes.

Another new nationwide poll, conducted by Quinnipiac University, asked the question this way: "Do you think any agreement to raise the national debt ceiling should include only spending cuts, or should it also include an increase in taxes for the wealthy and corporations?"

Some 48 percent of Republicans said spending cuts only, while 43 percent said also a tax increase. (Among all Americans, 67 percent favored the tax increase as well as spending cuts.)

In May, a Reuters/Ipsos poll also found more Republicans for a spending-cuts-only approach than for alternatives.

Given the rift between the parties, discussions on how to raise the national debt limit while also curbing future deficits have focused mostly on spending cuts. Democrats want to see some increases in tax revenue as well.

That need not involve a boost in tax rates for most Americans. One approach would be to restore Clinton-era tax rates on high-earning Americans, and to scale back the generosity of tax deductions.

In two recent polls, a majority of Americans urged politicians to "compromise" rather than oppose a deal based on political principles.

Outside budget experts say a compromise plan could go a long way toward restoring the nation's fiscal health. In his press conference, Obama also said, "We don’t have to do anything radical to solve this [deficit] problem."

That may depend on the definition of "radical," however.

Polls show Americans are reluctant to see cuts in entitlement benefits within Social Security and Medicare. The idea of reducing the national debt by making small cuts in those programs, coupled with a small tax hike, drew the support of 45 percent of Americans in an April poll by ABC News/Washington Post. But 53 percent opposed that idea.

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