Feb. 17 (Bloomberg) -- Democratic senators gathered at a Virginia resort last week to plot political strategy got alarming news from a trusted pollster: Republicans are winning the debate over dealing with the budget deficit.
The Democrats learned that while the public’s top concern is improving the economy, more voters view cutting spending rather than investing as the best way to do so. And right now, they trust Republicans more to do the trimming.
These views were pronounced among independents, whose support Democrats will need in 2012 to hold the Senate, recapture the House and keep President Barack Obama in office.
The data, presented to Democratic senators at their retreat by Geoff Garin, president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates, and obtained by Bloomberg News, highlight a dilemma for Obama and Democrats in the showdown with Republicans over federal spending. They must find a way to show the public they’re willing to cut, and they’re divided over how far to go.
The message for Democrats, Garin said in an interview, is that their dispute with Republicans “can’t be framed as a debate between dealing with the deficit and not dealing with the deficit.” Democrats “have to make sure that this is posed in terms of the right way and the wrong way” to reduce the deficit “in a way that won’t harm the economy,” he said.
Senate Democrats yesterday backed Obama’s call for a five-year freeze on domestic spending controlled by Congress, just before visiting the White House to huddle with the president on budget strategy. They called the freeze part of an agenda for creating jobs and placing the country on firmer fiscal footing.
Some Democrats said they need to go further.
“I think we have to” go beyond Obama’s budget proposal in seeking ways to decrease the deficit, said Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat. He said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about prospects for a bipartisan agreement on overhauling federal entitlement programs, such as Medicare, and the tax code.
“Americans are looking for leadership, and this is an opportunity for Democrats to show that we’re serious,” Coons said.
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat facing re-election next year, said it’s difficult to agree on spending reductions because each program has a loyal following.
“Cutting is essential, and the public wants us to cut, but once you get into the details, then it gets to be a little stickier,” McCaskill said.
Garin’s research, based on a survey of 1,100 likely voters conducted Feb. 3-5, underscored that challenge. While it found two-thirds of the public supportive of significant steps to address the deficit, it also found large majorities opposed specific cuts to such programs as education, law enforcement and disease research. Pluralities called capping entitlement spending or cutting defense expenditures unacceptable.
It showed deeper concern with the deficit and enthusiasm for spending cuts than some other recent surveys, including a December Bloomberg National poll that found the public believed it was more important to “minimize sacrifice” than to take “bold and fast” action to pare the debt. A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted Feb. 11-14 found just 7 percent concerned about the deficit compared to 48 percent who called jobs and the economy the most important problem.
Garin’s poll also found jobs and the economy outranked the deficit on the public’s list of concerns, 54 percent to 34 percent. Yet the survey showed that 50 percent of voters cited cutting federal spending as the top priority for improving the economy, while 40 percent named job creation.
Respondents gave Republicans an edge over Obama in dealing with the budget -- with 43 percent saying they trusted Republicans more on the issue, compared with 38 percent for the president -- while Democrats in Congress were trusted by 31 percent. The advantage for Republicans was even more pronounced among independents, 40 percent of whom saw them as more likely to act on the deficit, versus 18 percent for Democrats.
Obama asserts that his 2012 budget embraces budget-cutting. The administration projects the plan would reduce the deficit, estimated to hit $1.6 trillion this year, by more than $1 trillion over a decade.
Some Democrats assailed Obama for proposals that included cuts to home energy assistance funding and community service grants.
“Nickel-and-diming our way to economic recovery, especially on the backs of working Americans who did nothing to cause our economic problems, is not the right way to go,” said Representative Raul Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat who is chairman of Congress’ Progressive Caucus.
Republicans also confront divisions over how deeply to cut. Fiscally conservative House Republicans last week insisted on -- and ultimately won -- bigger reductions in a budget package proposed by party leaders. This week, as the House debates cutting spending for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year by $61 billion, some Republicans pushed for more cuts.
Garin’s poll indicated that if Republicans are viewed as overreaching on spending cuts, they could lose support among independents.
Democrats have been quick to draw a contrast between the parties, billing their approach as prudent while attacking Republicans’ as rash.
Embracing Obama’s five-year freeze is “serious belt-tightening,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat.
“We are being responsible,” Schumer told reporters yesterday. Republicans “are being reckless,” he said.
Republicans counter that they’re listening to the message voters sent in November’s elections.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said Democrats should “stop thinking about what they can get away with and start thinking about what’s actually needed to solve this crisis.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org