What do Americans "really" think about President Bush's plans for a new round of tax cuts?
At the risk of stating the obvious, it depends.
Assuming some faith in the efficacy of public-opinion polls, a lot can hang on the wording. It's not just whether the question is balanced, but the context.
Take a May 11-13 poll commissioned by the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University. One question stacked up tax reductions against spending on schools.
"Which would you prefer," the poll asked, "the full $550 billion tax cut that President Bush is proposing to stimulate the economy, or a smaller federal tax cut and increased federal aid to states to help maintain funding for public schools?"
Just 25 percent picked the full-blown tax cut, while 67 percent chose the second option.
Actually, $550 billion isn't what Mr. Bush wanted—he requested $726 billion—or what he's going to get. Congress last week passed a $330 billion cut, bundled with a $20 billion aid package for states. Mr. Bush likely will sign it.
A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll from early May indicated more sympathy for the president's plan, at least when no alternative was presented.
"Do you think the tax cuts being proposed by George W. Bush are a good idea or a bad idea at this time?" the survey asked, rotating the order of good and bad. Here, 52 percent deemed them good, 41 percent bad.
But the tax cuts began to fall from favor when put in another light. Respondents were asked whether they'd prefer a tax cut or reducing the deficit. This time, 44 percent picked lower taxes and 51 percent lowering the deficit.
A May 9-12 poll by TheNew York Times and CBS News found still more variations.
"If you had to choose, which do you think is more important right now, continue to cut taxes or make sure all Americans have access to health care?" The winner? Health care by a landslide of 81 percent, while 14 percent picked tax cuts.
It seems unlikely that any of those polling figures will change the president's mind on making tax cuts a priority. But he may want to pay attention to another, little-noticed question in the New York Times/CBS News survey.
Asked how much progress Mr. Bush has made in improving public schools, half said none or not much, 38 percent said "some," and a slim 6 percent said "a lot."
—Erik W. Robelen
Vol. 22, Issue 38, Page 18