Americans, believing that tensions with the Soviet Union are at the lowest point since the Cold War began more than 40 years ago, overwhelmingly favor Pentagon spending cuts and requiring U.S. allies to take over more of the West’s defense burden, according to a Gallup poll conducted for Times Mirror Co.
In a profound shift of public opinion, few Americans displayed much fear of military threats from abroad. Rather, the majority is now worried that Japan has displaced the United States as the world’s leading economic power.
The survey showed that the public remains generally optimistic about the future of the country and upbeat about the health of the economy, representing what Gallup’s president, Andrew Kohut, called a pervasive “don’t worry, be happy” attitude among many Americans.
But the poll cited a number of opinions that could markedly influence public policy if the economy deteriorates in the near future.
Xenophobia Is High
Americans, for example, expressed a “fair degree of xenophobia,” pollsters said, with an overwhelming 70% convinced that foreign investment is bad for the United States.
Americans believe also that Japan and South Korea are much more unfair in their trading practices than Canada and Europe. Even though most Americans are pleased with the quality of foreign products and disenchanted with some U.S. goods, a majority favors restrictions on Japanese imports and many would support tariffs on goods from South Korea as well.
The findings suggest that, should the economy weaken and unemployment rise significantly from its current low level of under 5.5%, there could be a widespread clamor for protectionist measures to limit foreign investment and imported products.
Those protectionist beliefs place the public at large sharply at odds with the influential elite in the nation, the poll found. Both business and government leaders are far less worried about foreign investment than the public. And they are also more convinced that the United States is the world’s leading economic power and will remain so through the end of the century.
The Times Mirror survey was one of the most extensive ever taken of public attitudes on economic issues. Unlike most polls, which rely on questioning over the telephone, the survey consisted of slightly more than 2,000 face-to-face interviews lasting about one hour. The margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Ambivalence on Deficit
The poll attempted to discern public opinion on the best way to cut the federal budget deficit but found many people hard pressed to choose between the necessary trade-offs.
Despite a widespread belief that the budget deficit is the nation’s worst economic problem, for example, Americans favor few substantive spending cuts outside the Pentagon. They are particularly opposed to cuts in government programs that benefit the elderly, the largest and fastest growing part of the federal budget. And, even though only a relatively trivial sum is devoted to foreign aid, it was by far the most popular target for cutting.
At the same time, substantial majorities of Americans would like to see government spending increased on a wide range of domestic programs.
But those interviewed, although expressing widespread cynicism about President Bush’s pledge to avoid a tax increase, remain unwilling to support any tax hike that would seriously affect their own wallets.
Only 20% of all Americans favor an increase in gasoline taxes, which is the tax hike believed most likely to emerge in any budget compromise between the White House and congressional Democrats. And just 10% support the idea of increasing taxes on Social Security benefits received by more affluent retirees, another deficit-cutting tactic often discussed among lawmakers.
Most people oppose a broad 5% federal sales tax, even if it included exemptions for food, housing and medical care. On the other hand, strong majorities favor raising so-called “sin” taxes on beer, wine and cigarettes; but proposals for such tax hikes would generate only about $35 billion in additional revenues over the next five years.
Economic Pain Unpopular
A majority of Americans, concerned about what its members perceive as growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, support taxing the rich and corporations more heavily. But there is no consensus in Washington for overturning the major 1986 tax revision law, which lowered the top rate on individuals and businesses in return for eliminating a host of tax loopholes used most extensively by the wealthy.
To the extent that those attitudes influence political leaders, the most likely outcome is continued stalemate on important economic policy questions. Although Democrats have “opportunities for scoring a lot of points politically,” said political scientist Norman Ornstein, a consultant on the Times Mirror poll, Congress will find it difficult to move forward on its own agenda because there is little support for doing anything “very painful” to reduce the budget deficit.
As long as the economy keeps growing, few Americans are interested in rocking the boat, the poll suggested. But President Bush, who rode into office on a promise to continue most of President Ronald Reagan’s policies, could quickly lose his protective armor if the economy weakens during his tenure. “Prosperity is the best weapon George Bush has,” Ornstein said. “He can’t afford to lose it.”
Foreign Tensions Discounted
On national security issues, the poll reflected the impact on the public of recent U.S.-Soviet efforts to negotiate arms control agreements and lessen tensions.
Only 9% of the public mentioned international strains as the nation’s most important problem. By comparison, in past Gallup polls, the number of Americans who considered international tensions as paramount fluctuated between a high of 63% in 1963 and a low of 22% in 1986.
It fell briefly to lower levels only twice in the past, and that was when economic distress was so severe that it overrode virtually all other national concerns, Gallup pollsters said.
“Today, the low level of expressed concern for international problems exists in and of itself,” the pollsters said, “and does not merely reflect a national preoccupation with severe economic problems.”
The interviews for the Times Mirror poll were conducted between Jan. 27 and Feb. 5. Times Mirror is the corporate parent of the Los Angeles Times and owns other newspapers, magazines and television stations.
In addition, pollsters interviewed by phone about 250 members of the “economic elite.” These consisted of government officials, corporate executives, Wall Street financiers and foreign investors from the nations with the largest holdings in the United States--Great Britain, Holland, Japan and Canada.