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NBC/WSJ poll: Public wary about sequester cuts, but Obama in stronger political position than GOP

President Obama has been working hard to raise public fears about the sequester, and cabinet officials have also been speaking out about the dangers of the federal budget cuts. The warnings seem to have had an effect: according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 21 percent of the public feel the sequester is a good idea. NBC's Chuck Todd reports.

With automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to begin Friday, majorities of Americans believe that approach is not a good idea and also say the contentious budget negotiations make them less confident about the U.S. economy, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Click here for full poll results (.pdf)

Despite those findings, a majority still supports Congress moving ahead with either the current cuts or a plan containing even more cuts as a way to reduce the deficit, suggesting the public’s general appetite for reducing spending.

But the poll also shows that as the nation’s political actors once again quarrel over these automatic cuts totaling $1.2 trillion over 10 years – commonly referred to as sequestration or the sequester – President Barack Obama finds himself in a much stronger position than his Republican adversaries. 

Related: NBC/WSJ poll: Public says GOP less interested in unity than Obama is

“If the president needs some tweaks and adjustments, the Republican Party is pretty much in need of a major makeover,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. 

“The Republicans don’t need a silver lining; they need a whole new playbook,” Yang adds.

Cut a deal – or let the cuts take effect?
In the poll, 52 percent of respondents say the sequester cuts are a bad idea, versus just 21 percent who say they’re a good deal.

What’s more, 51 percent believe that the budget negotiations between Obama and congressional Republicans make them feel less confident about the economy, which is unchanged from when this question was first asked in last month’s poll.

Just 16 percent say the negotiations make them more confident about the economy.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., criticizes President Barack Obama's handling of the looming budget cuts facing U.S. agencies.

But a combined 53 percent prefer that Congress move ahead with the current sequester cuts or a plan that contains even more cuts. Thirty-seven percent want a plan with fewer cuts.

And in a separate question, exactly half of respondents say that Obama and congressional Republicans should work together to avoid the sequester cuts from taking place, while 46 percent believe the cuts – while not perfect – should go into effect.

But the NBC/WSJ pollsters caution that all of these numbers could change if these sequester cuts take place and are as dire as critics say. “A month from now, we might find a very different dynamic at play,” Yang says. “When you feel [these cuts], that’s a different story.”

Obama’s brief honeymoon – but growing support for his top priorities
In addition to the budget debate, the poll shows that Obama’s rise in the polls – after his re-election, his inaugural speech and his State of the Union address – has ended for now.

His overall approval rating stands at a healthy 50 percent, but that’s down two points since January and three points since December. 

The percentage approving of the president’s handling of the economy has dropped five points, from 49 percent last month to 44 percent now.

And just 32 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the right direction – down three points since January.

“The poll points to significant vulnerabilities for the president” heading in next year’s midterm elections, says McInturff, the GOP pollster. 

Alex Wong / Getty Images

President Barack Obama waves during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding Feb. 26 in Newport News, Va.

Democratic pollster Yang adds: “The transition from campaigning to governing hasn’t brightened the public’s mood.”

That said, strong majorities support the broad outlines of Obama’s top domestic priorities – on immigration, gun control and raising the minimum wage. 

Fifty-four percent favor giving undocumented immigrants the ability to apply for legal status, which is up two points from last month’s NBC/WSJ poll. 

Also, 61 percent believe the laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, which is up five points since January.

And nearly six in 10 support Obama’s proposal from his State of the Union address to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $9.00.

Asked which of Obama’s proposals Republicans in Congress should offer a helping hand, 36 percent answer eliminating tax loopholes for the wealthy; 28 percent say expanding background checks for guns; 23 percent cite making preschool available for every child; 17 percent say giving illegal immigrants a path to legal status; and 11 percent say addressing climate change and global warming.

GOP’s poor standing with the public
While Obama has seen his poll numbers drop – albeit within the survey’s margin of error – his political standing remains significantly stronger than Republicans’.

Only 29 percent of respondents say they agree “with most” of what Republicans in Congress have proposed (versus 45 percent for Obama and 40 percent for congressional Democrats). 

An identical 29 percent have a favorable view of the Republican Party (compared with 49 percent for Obama and 41 percent for the Democratic Party).

 

House Speaker John Boehner addresses the ongoing sequester standoff on Capitol Hill.

And the public believes the GOP is more interested in partisanship than Obama is: 48 percent say Obama is pursuing a path on unifying the country in a bipartisan way, while 43 percent say he's taking a partisan approach that doesn't unify the country.

By comparison, 64 percent say Republicans are taking a partisan approach, versus 22 percent who say it's focused on unity.

What’s more, the polls shows the Democratic Party beats the Republican Party on almost every issue – looking out for middle class (by 22 points), Medicare (by 18 points), health care (16 points), reducing gun violence (15 points), Social Security (14 points), immigration (7 points) and even taxes (3 points) and the economy (2 points).

The only issues where the GOP holds the advantage in the survey are reducing the federal deficit (by 6 points), controlling government spending (16 points) and ensuring a strong national defense (26 points). 

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Feb. 21-24 of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents), and it has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.