(MCT) — President Barack Obama's latest budget proposal foreshadows a fierce debate that will dominate this election year, and a new Tribune/WGN-TV poll suggests the Democratic incumbent's theme of mixing tax increases on the wealthy with spending cuts resonates in his home state.
Two-thirds of Illinois voters in the survey said they agree with Obama's push for the so-called Buffett rule, which would require people who make more than $1 million annually to pay a tax rate of at least 30 percent. And 3 in 5 voters said they believe the present tax code is skewed to favor the rich.
That said, the survey also provides ammunition for Republicans. Almost half of voters said the government's primary focus in reducing deficits should be on cutting government services, while a similar share said they didn't think a tax increase was necessary to reduce the soaring national debt, now standing at $15 trillion.
The survey of 600 registered Illinois voters was conducted Feb. 2-6, before Obama on Monday took the formal wraps off his budget proposal for the coming year — a $3.8 trillion plan that would be $901 billion in the red for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. The poll had an error margin of 4 percent.
The plan reflects Obama's view that the nation's economic recovery is so fragile that long-term deficit reduction must be preceded by short-term stimulus, to be bankrolled partly by the wealthiest Americans. Republicans consider that a recipe for running up more debt and nothing short of class warfare.
Those all-but-irreconcilable visions have fed the brinkmanship that has come to dominate Washington and palpably sour voters during the past two years. And the volume will only get amped up in the coming weeks and months, as a bloody GOP nominating battle lurches toward some kind of clarity and the November presidential vote approaches.
Illinois is Obama territory and a solidly blue state. Yet perceptions here about tax fairness and deficit reduction still break along sharp demographic and geographic lines that suggest how those cutting-edge issues will play in the national debate.
The poll pinpointed one issue of sweeping consensus when it comes to taxes: Most voters, regardless of party, race, location or income, think tax laws favor the affluent.
Across Illinois, 59 percent of voters said they agreed with that notion, while 17 percent thought the tax code favored low-income people and 8 percent said middle-income earners came out best. Even a slight plurality of Republicans shared the prevailing sentiment, with 32 percent saying high-income people came out best while 29 percent saying it was low-income people.
Among those who said they make more than $100,000 annually, 56 percent thought the wealthy got the best tax breaks. One of those is 54-year-old Paul Szorc, an optometrist from Palatine.
"A lot of people in positions of power are taking advantage of the system," said Szorc, who, with two children in college, finds his budget stretched despite a family income higher than most. "People in power, people with political connections are doing much better than the common people."
Such responses play into a common Obama narrative about tax fairness that is reprised in his budget plan. That document is laced with a variety of tax proposals focusing on the wealthy, including the 30 percent floor on the tax rate paid by million-dollar earners.
Democrats have sought to make Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney a poster child for this issue, pointing out how the former private-equity firm leader has made tens of millions of dollars in recent years, yet he pays a tax rate lower than many middle-income earners.
The 30 percent "Buffett rule," named for billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who inspired it, got a big thumbs-up from 67 percent of voters in the survey across Illinois. It holds strong appeal among political independents, a key voting bloc both parties will try to woo this fall.
On this issue, however, Republican voters differ, with nearly 6 out of 10 disagreeing with the Buffett concept.
One of those is Tony Nesby, 36, a garbage collector in Bloomington who said he works hard and thinks he will eventually reap financial rewards like the millionaires who now own his company but started out on the bottom rung.
Enterprise and energy shouldn't be punished, said Nesby, who sees no reason to gripe because the rich take advantage of tax breaks he can't. "If someone hands you a free cheeseburger, you're going to take it," he explained. "That's the way America works, especially when it comes to money."
Phil Carlson, of Indian Head Park, also has no complaints about tax breaks for the rich, even though the 55-year-old home repairman doesn't benefit because his earnings are modest. "Incrementally raising taxes on the wealthiest 5 or 10 percent will not save our budget problems," said Carlson, also a Republican. "We have to look at how government spends money."
Obama has pushed a variety of tax proposals focusing on the wealthy since he took office in 2009, only to be thwarted by congressional Republicans.
The president's budget proposal reprises many of those approaches in a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases that he contends will slice projected deficits by $4 trillion over the next decade. Republicans contend Obama's math is fanciful, deficits will go unchecked and the cumulative debt continue to grow.
On this issue, the GOP could capitalize on the opinions of Illinois voters in the survey, who by a margin of 48 percent to 42 percent said a tax increase was not necessary to reduce the debt.
The only reason the split was that close is that the overall pro-tax hike numbers were swayed by results from heavily Democratic Chicago, where 61 percent of those surveyed said an increase was necessary.
The results were flipped elsewhere, with 55 percent of collar-county voters and 58 percent of those Downstate contending the debt could be reduced without tax increases.
Likewise, 57 percent of independent voters and just more than half of white suburban women also disavowed the need for higher taxes as a debt reduction tool.
Chicago also diverged from the rest of the state on a related tax question. A plurality of city voters, 43 percent, felt that tax increases should be the main focus of Washington's deficit-reduction efforts, while 38 percent said cutting government services was more important.
Republicans statewide felt strongly about the issue, with 78 percent saying cuts should dominate deficit reduction. Fully 54 percent of independent voters felt that way too. The wealthier the voter, the more support they displayed for cutting services.
Among white voters, 53 percent said their top priority was to cut spending. Black voters presented an almost mirror image, with 52 percent saying tax increases were more important.