WASHINGTON — Americans are evenly split on whether Congress should extend all the Bush-era tax cuts, or retain only those for households that earn less than $250,000 a year and allow taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent to rise, a new McClatchy-Marist poll has found.
The findings, released Monday, show the limits of President Barack Obama's argument heading into November congressional elections that Republicans are holding tax relief for most Americans hostage to protect their rich friends and donors. This is the hottest policy question that Congress faces before the elections.
The survey found that 48 percent of registered voters think that all the tax cuts should be extended before they expire at year's end. Forty-nine percent agree with Obama and congressional Democratic leaders that the tax reductions should be limited to those whose household earnings are less than $250,000.
"He's still got a lot of convincing to do," said Lee M. Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which performed the survey. "It's totally within his purview to make his case, but he still has a very divided electorate to deal with, and by no means is the tax cut a slam dunk in the court of public opinion."
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The sour economy still troubles Americans. Four of five U.S. residents think that the nation's economy is still in recession despite four straight quarters of positive growth, the survey of 1,005 adults last Tuesday through Thursday found. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points for the full sample.
The experts disagree with those polled about the recession; on Monday, the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official arbiter of business cycles, declared that the recent recession, which began in December 2007, ended in June 2009, making it the longest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Still, the public perception is that the recession isn't over. In fact, a 52 percent majority of Americans said the worst was yet to come, while only 44 percent said the worst was behind us.
Pessimism split largely along partisan lines. More than two-thirds of Republicans thought the worst was still ahead, while 60 percent of Democrats said the worst was over. Among independents, 55 percent fear the worst is still to come.
"On this question, the independents are not in Obama's corner," Miringoff said. "The president still has a lot of convincing to do, both on questions of the future of the economy and his handling of the economy."
A majority of Americans, 59 percent, said that Obama mostly had inherited rather than caused the bad economic conditions, versus 35 percent who said that the president's policies mostly caused those conditions.
Still, 56 percent said they disapproved of how he was handing the economy.
Only 30 percent expect their personal finances to improve over the next year, while 18 percent expect them to get worse and 52 percent expect them to stay about the same.
The president has said that extending the Bush-era tax cuts for those who earn less than $250,000 would spur the economy as it emerges from recession, but that the country can't afford the loss of $700 billion in tax revenue over a decade that the Treasury estimates that it would lose by extending the tax reductions on earnings above $250,000.
However, only a modest majority of voters — 55 percent — considers a household income of $250,000 to be wealthy, the survey found. Even in households that earn less than $50,000, more than a third of voters said a family that earned more than five times as much wasn't necessarily wealthy.
For Obama, the most pivotal skeptics on the tax cut question appear to be independent males. Almost two-thirds of Democratic men and three-fourths of Democratic women support extending only limited tax reductions, while only about one-third of Republican men and women think the cuts should stop there.
Independents split along gender lines. Independent women favored the limited extension by 57 percent to 39 percent, but a majority of independent men wanted to extend the cuts for the top 2 percent as well, 59 percent to 38 percent.
Among voters who called themselves "very enthusiastic" about the November elections, 58 want the tax reductions extended to all income brackets, while 41 percent side with Obama.
This survey of 1,005 U.S. residents was conducted last Tuesday through Thursday. Residents 18 and older were interviewed by telephone. Phone numbers were selected based on a list of telephone exchanges from throughout the nation. The exchanges were selected to ensure that each region was represented in proportion to its population. To increase coverage, this land-line sample was supplemented by respondents reached through random dialing of cell phone numbers. The two samples then were combined. Results are statistically significant at plus or minus 3 percentage points. There are 815 registered voters. The results for this subset are statistically significant at plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. The error margin increases for cross-tabulations.
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