As President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress continued their high-stakes stand-off over raising the debt ceiling and other budget issues, Obama held a press conference to press his case that he's a reasonable guy.
One of the main points of contention is whether an agreement should include tax increases of any kind, such as closing tax loopholes or tax increases on the wealthy. Republicans oppose raising taxes.
During a press conference on July 15, 2011, Obama was asked if the negotiations would be going better if he had started making his case to the public months ago, pushing a proposal that included tax increases and spending cuts. Obama rejected the premise.
"You have 80 percent of the American people who support a balanced approach. Eighty percent of the American people support an approach that includes revenues and includes cuts. So the notion that somehow the American people aren't sold is not the problem," he said. "The problem is members of Congress are dug in ideologically into various positions because they boxed themselves in with previous statements."
We won't weigh in on Obama's diagnosis of being dug in, but we were interested in the poll numbers on whether the public supports a balanced approach or not.
The most recent poll we found largely supported Obama's statement. A Gallup poll conducted July 7-10, 2011 posed the question this way:
"As you may know, Congress can reduce the federal budget deficit by cutting spending, raising taxes, or a combination of the two. Ideally, how would you prefer to see Congress attempt to reduce the federal budget deficit: only with spending cuts, mostly with spending cuts, equally with spending cuts and tax increases, mostly with tax increases, or only with tax increases?"
The answer "only spending cuts" got 20 percent. The other answers were "mostly spending cuts," 30 percent; "equal spending cuts and tax increases," 32 percent; "mostly tax increases," 7 percent; "only tax increases," 4 percent; unsure/other, 6 percent.
We'll note that Obama counted in his favor people who favored only tax increases or who weren't sure, so he wasn't completely accurate. If you deduct those groups, only 70 percent support the balanced approach. But the poll did support his overall point.
Other polls also showed support for Obama's statement, but not quite at an 80-percent level.
A poll from Quinnipiac University conducted July 5-11, 2011, asked: "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?"
In this case, 67 percent favored including tax increases, while 25 percent favored spending cuts only. Another 8 percent were unsure.
In June, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that most people, 46 percent, favored a combination of cuts and tax increases, compared with 26 percent who said cuts alone and 13 percent who said raise taxes. An ABC/Washington Post poll from April found the number was higher, at 59 percent.
We reviewed polls and consulted experts a few weeks ago for a fact-check on whether people support tax increases or not. Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who studies polls on taxation, told us polls usually show support for balanced approaches, particularly if people don't have to pay the higher taxes themselves.
"Generally, combinations of tax hikes and spending cuts are most popular. It seems fair to most people. Spending cuts are favored in the abstract. Tax hikes are favored as long as they don't affect me. Generally, people don't think anybody should have to pay more than a quarter of their income in total taxes," she said.
Finally, a few other cautions on poll numbers.
Pollsters have long noted that when you ask questions with different wording, you get different results. All the polls we looked at phrased the question slightly differently.
A few recent polls also suggested that people find the whole debt ceiling debate confusing, or they aren't following it very closely. A Pew Research Center/Washington Post poll from May asked people how well they felt they understood what would happen if the government does not raise the federal debt limit; 47 percent said "not too well" or "not at all well." And the July Gallup poll found that 42 percent of respondents were following the issue "not too closely" or "not at all."
Getting back to Obama's statement, he said, "You have 80 percent of the American people who support a balanced approach. Eighty percent of the American people support an approach that includes revenues and includes cuts." Even the best poll doesn't show support quite that high -- he would more accurately have accounted for the small numbers that support only tax increases or were unsure, putting the number at 70 percent. But his overall point is correct that polls show most Americans support a balanced approach when given a choice between cutting spending or raising taxes. So we rate his statement Mostly True.