There's not much of a political lesson in a poll out this morning showing that people support federal budget cuts, but just not to the military: Differentiating between decision-making in the abstract and specific examples, after all, is a hallmark of American politics.
The Washington Post/ABC poll at issue consists of two questions: Do you support a five percent across-the-board cut in federal spending? and, Do you support an eight percent across-the-board cut in military spending? To the first question, a majority of respondents, 61 percent, said yes, cut the federal budget. To the second, no: 60 percent oppose cutting the military that substantially. The Post's takeaway? "The American public likes the idea of cutting federal spending; what they don’t like are actual cuts in federal spending."
Slate's Matt Yglesias agrees with that sentiment, but suggests that the two-question survey is a "cheap trick."
The correct context for this is a Pew poll which asked about many categories of spending and found that there was majority support for cuts in exactly zero categories. Decrease spending is a plurality position on foreign aid and nothing else. … On every other category, more voters prefer an increase in spending to a decrease.
That February Pew poll, online here, demonstrates his point: Americans may like the idea of cuts, but generally oppose cutting anything in particular. Given the choice (and the budget), we'd keep or increase funding for nearly every specific project; even Republicans would increase spending on things like agriculture, veteran's benefits, natural disaster relief, and social security.
Meaning that this debate on spending is another manifestation of a broader attitude: Americans have much different attitudes toward things they're familiar with than things in the aggregate.
Take Congress. At the end of 2011, Gallup polled Americans on Congress, finding a then-record amount of dissatisfaction with the body — 76 percent of Americans thought most members of Congress shouldn't be reelected. But for people's personal members of the House? 53 percent supported their return to Capitol Hill.
It's a sort of NIMBYism. Just as people recognize the need for infrastructure projects in their cities, no one wants a highway in his backyard. The specific context changes the political attittude. Familiarity breeds nuance. Cut the government? Sure, whatever. Cut the military? No, we need that. Vote against Rep. Smith? No, he's been good. Build that sewage plant two blocks away? Never.
There's a corollary: People who don't use government services are far more likely not to see their value. The least popular program in the Pew poll was foreign aid — something almost no American sees any benefit from directly. The long-standing push to trim nutrition assistance and social safety programs rarely stem from the segments of the population that use them.
If nothing else, the Post/ABC poll illustrates why the president's focus before the sequestration kicked in was on specific programs seeing specific cuts, and why his opponents focus more specifically on the bigger picture. It also reinforces that, once it was set in motion, sequestration — massive, sweeping spending reductions of the sort that people theoretically endorse — was a tough fight for the president to win.