Initial Reaction to Obama Budget Tilts Positive

by Frank Newport

About a third of Americans have yet to form an opinion

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans' first reactions to President Barack Obama's new 10-year budget plan are more positive than negative, although a sizable group of Americans say they haven't been following news about the plan and have not yet formed an opinion. The weekend Gallup Poll finds 44% of Americans saying their reaction to the new plan is positive and 26% saying it's negative, with the rest having no opinion.

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The poll data clearly show that Americans are sharply divided along party lines in their initial reactions to the budget plan, which includes $3.6 trillion in spending in 2010 and a wide variety of spending plans and tax adjustments in the years thereafter. More than 6 in 10 Republicans say their first reaction is negative and nearly 7 in 10 Democrats say their reaction is positive. Reaction to the plan is more evenly divided among independents, but is generally more positive than negative.

Americans who identify themselves as liberals (about 20% of this sample) are strongly positive, while moderates (39% of the sample) are more positive than negative, and conservatives (37% of the sample) are more negative than positive. Conservatives are not as strongly negative about the plan as are Republicans, reflecting at least in part the fact that conservatives in America today are not monolithically Republican.

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The Gallup Poll was conducted Feb. 27-28, just a day or two after Obama's unveiling of his massive budget plan on Thursday. At the time of the interviewing, a quarter of Americans said they were following news about the plan very closely, with another 42% following the news somewhat closely, leaving about a third who were following news about the plan not too closely or not at all.

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The data show that those who are following the plan very closely are somewhat more likely to have a negative reaction to it than are those who are playing less close attention. Among the most attentive group, positive reactions exceed negative ones by only about six percentage points. Among the less attentive groups, the spread between positive and negative is much larger.

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This could, of course, indicate that paying close attention to the plan generates a more negative reaction, suggesting in turn that as more Americans hear and read about the plan, reactions will become less supportive. However, an examination of the data shows that Republicans and conservatives at this early juncture are more likely to be paying very close attention to the plan than are Democrats and liberals. Thus, the overall finding that those paying attention are most negative could be simply a reflection of the pre-existing ideologies and/or orientations of the types of people who follow the news closely, rather than a reflection of the plan's content per se.

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Bottom Line

The initial public reactions to President Obama's new 10-year budget proposal are highly partisan, with Democrats and liberals (and, to a lesser degree, independents) evincing a positive reaction, while Republicans and conservatives respond in a much more negative fashion. These public opinion differences reflect the sharp divergence in the comments and reactions of politicians and commentators over the weekend, with Democrats and Obama staffers defending the budget, while Republicans and conservatives generally were highly critical.

At this juncture in history, more Americans identify as Democrats than Republicans. That fact, coupled with the finding that independents are more positive than negative about the budget, yields the situation in which the public's overall reaction to the budget plan in this nascent phase of the debate is more positive than negative.

About a third of Americans have not yet formed even an initial reaction to President Obama's new 10-year budget proposal, and, separately, a third say they have paid little attention to the news about the budget. Most of the rest say they have followed news about the plan "somewhat closely" rather than "very closely." There will be intensive news coverage of the debate over the plan in the coming weeks, and it is possible that public opinion will shift as the process unfolds.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,023 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 27-28, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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