Public opinion signals a narrow path for President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans to press their tax-cut agenda, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The survey shows no groundswell of support for tax cuts. Fully 62 percent of Americans say taxes for the wealthy should be increased; 55 percent say taxes on corporations should go up.
At the same time, 57 percent of Americans say taxes should be cut for small businesses. And a 54 percent majority agrees that a major tax cut for corporations would encourage them to expand and add jobs.
Those conflicting indicators mean “there aren’t people at the barricades (pushing) in either direction,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who helps conduct the NBC/WSJ poll. And that means both parties have the chance to gain the upper hand by mounting effective public arguments.
For Republicans, that means emphasizing the benefits of tax cuts for small business and job creation. While college-educated voters remain skeptical of the jobs argument, it draws 60 percent support among the white-working class Americans who propelled Trump to the presidency.
“Talking to their base, the Republicans will have a case to make,” said Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who works with McInturff on the survey.
For Democrats, it means emphasizing the benefits of GOP proposals for corporations and the wealthy. Independents and white voters want higher taxes on both by almost as much as Americans overall do.
Considering all potential options, Americans remain split on their bottom-line prescriptions for Congress. Just 4 percent want a tax-cut just for businesses, while 24 percent want a cut only for individuals.
Another 28 percent want both business and individual tax cuts. But the largest single group, 42 percent, says Congress should not cut taxes at this time.
Most striking of all is how muted opinion on taxes has become. A 55 percent majority calls their own tax burden “about the right amount,” exceeding the 40 percent who say they pay “more than their fair share.”
In some ways, Republicans are fighting uphill as they look ahead to the 2018 midterm elections. By 48 percent to 42 percent, Americans say they want Democrats rather than Republicans to win control of Congress.
The poll also underscores the internal turmoil the GOP faces. Just 36 percent of self-described Republicans expresses satisfaction with performance of House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while 59 percent of Republicans say they are dissatisfied.
Just one third of Americans say Trump has accomplished “a great deal” or “a fair amount,” as president, while two thirds say “only some” or “very little.” By nearly three-to-one margins, the public disapproves of Trump’s use of Twitter and his handling of the violent white nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Yet one key GOP indicator improved. The telephone poll of 900 adults, which carries a margin for error of 3.27 percentage points, was conducted Sept. 14-18 following Trump’s handling of recent hurricanes as well as his deal on the budget and debt limit with Democratic Congressional leaders.
The share of Americans who approve of Trump’s job performance ticked up to 43 percent, from 40 percent in August. The share who disapprove edged down to 52 percent from 55 percent.
—By CNBC’s John Harwood. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnJHarwood