CNN Poll: Two-thirds of Americans say fiscal cliff is no joking matter, poses major problem

WASHINGTON -- A new national poll suggests Americans understand that the "fiscal cliff" is no joking matter.

Two-thirds of people questioned in a CNN/ORC International survey say that the U.S. would face a crisis or major problems if the country went off the "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year, and if that happened, Republicans in Congress would probably receive the greater share of the blame.

The poll also indicates that more than seven in ten Americans call for compromise on this issue, but they are pessimistic about that actually happening, with two-thirds predicting that Washington officials will act like "spoiled children," not "responsible adults," in the upcoming negotiations.

Last year Congress and President Barack Obama agreed to a program to reduce the federal deficit that some people refer to as the "fiscal cliff." Unless Congress and the President reach an agreement within the next few weeks, tax rates will automatically rise next year for nearly all Americans and major spending cuts will automatically begin to kick in for most government spending programs, including military programs.

According to the poll, which was released Monday, nearly one out of four say those tax increases and spending cuts will cause a crisis, with another 44% saying they would cause major problems. Nearly one in four say if the country falls off the "fiscal cliff," only minor problems would occur, with 7% saying there would be no consequences.

"Americans definitely feel that they have something at stake in the upcoming negotiations -- 77% believe that their personal financial situation will be affected if the government goes off the fiscal cliff," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

At issue in the negotiations is a disagreement between the two major political parties over how to best raise the federal government's revenues. The president and most congressional Democrats argue for tax rate increases on the wealthiest Americans in order to raise revenue, while most congressional Republicans call for the closing of loopholes and reform in the tax code. Both parties have indicated a willingness to implement spending cuts, although a decision over how much and where has yet to be made.

So what does the public think?

Two thirds of those questioned in the poll say that any agreement should include a mix of spending cuts and tax increases, with just under one in three saying a deal should only include spending cuts.

Democrats questioned in the survey overwhelmingly support an agreement that has both, and six out of ten independents feel the same way. By a 52%-44% margin, Republicans also favor a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases instead of a deal that only includes spending cuts.

As for the sticking point between the parties over an increase in taxes for the wealthiest Americans, 56% say taxes on wealthy people should be kept high so the government can use their money for programs to help lower-income people, with 36% saying taxes on such high earners should be kept low because they invest their money in the private sector and that helps the economy and creates jobs.

As for the prospects of a deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff," the public's not so optimistic.

"Americans aren't sanguine about the prospects of a deal. Only 28% say that Washington officials will act like responsible adults in this matter, with 67% saying they believe they will behave like spoiled children," adds Holland.

The poll also indicates that the GOP is not exactly bargaining from a position of strength. Fifty-three percent of the country has an unfavorable view of the Republican Party; only 42% want to see congressional Republican have more influence than the president over the direction the nation takes in the next two years. And seven in ten say the GOP has not done enough to cooperate with Obama.

All of that helps explain why more Americans would blame the Republicans in Congress (45%) rather than Obama (34%) if the fiscal cliff provisions actually go into effect next year. Obama comes in for his share of criticism -- nearly half say he is not doing enough to cooperate with the Republicans, although seven in ten want him to compromise with the GOP even if he has to sacrifice some of his beliefs.

The CNN poll was conducted by ORC International from November 16-18, with 1,023 adult Americans questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report


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