By Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Most Americans are optimistic about the policies that Barack Obama will pursue when he becomes the country's 44th president next month, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, and there is a widespread public desire that he quickly expand his focus beyond the economy, the dominant issue facing the country.
Majorities think Obama should help make major changes to the health-care system, enact new energy policies and institute a moratorium on home foreclosures. Majorities expect him to end U.S. involvement in Iraq, improve health care and turn around America's image abroad. But there is little consensus about where he should focus his efforts first, and partisan fault lines abound, setting up a potentially contentious period of initial lawmaking.
Obama and the Democratic leadership in Congress have indicated that the first legislation offered in the new year will focus on the nation's flagging economy, an issue on which two-thirds of those polled said the new president and Congress should concentrate. A similar proportion, 65 percent, support a large stimulus package along the lines sketched out in recent days by the Obama transition team.
Large majorities want Obama to pursue a wide range of issues besides the economy, including 84 percent who want him to drive an effort to require electricity companies to increase the use of renewable sources of energy. A majority, 55 percent, want him to tackle the issue right after taking office in January.
Obama has proposed that utilities be mandated to draw 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2012 and 25 percent by 2025, a somewhat longer timetable than the one laid out in legislation the House passed this year but the Senate rejected. With a bigger Democratic majority in the Senate and with the White House in Democratic hands for the first time in eight years, prospects are brighter for the bill, the broad outlines of which have public support across the political spectrum: Majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents alike say Obama should pursue a renewables requirement, though there are deeper divisions about how soon he should make that push.
There is also bipartisan agreement that the federal government should increase spending on children's health insurance, which President Bush twice vetoed last year before signing an extension to the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which expires in March.
A majority want Obama to make big changes to the country's health-care system, with 63 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of independents saying they want the changes right away.
But Democratic leaders are not eager to see history repeated on health-care reform: An early push for systematic changes gripped Washington soon after Bill Clinton took office in 1993, only to fizzle and choke momentum for other parts of the Democratic agenda.
Obama has nominated former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) as secretary of health and human services and plans to make him director of a new White House office on health-care reform, hoping the dual role will help to streamline the reform process and avoid some of the pitfalls that the Clinton administration encountered.
Although Republicans in the poll also want Obama to pursue major health-care reforms, they are far less apt to say he should do so immediately, and a substantial minority, 44 percent, do not want any big shake-up in that policy arena. And partisan clashes may be unavoidable in other key areas.
Most Democrats and independents want Obama to carry through on his campaign pledge to pull out most U.S. combat forces from Iraq in his first 16 months, while most Republicans would prefer that he drop the idea.
A majority of Republicans also oppose expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, something most Democrats and about half of independents want Obama to pursue right away, reversing the Bush administration's policy of limiting money to research already eligible for federal grants..
Obama and the incoming Democratic Congress enjoy more support from Republicans nationwide for a moratorium on home foreclosures. The president-elect has been sharply critical of the Treasury Department for not using more federal resources to assist homeowners struggling to make payments.
Ten percent of homeowners polled said they had fallen behind on mortgage payments at some point in the past year, and more than a third of all participants voiced concern about their ability to make mortgage or rent payments.
A majority of Republicans (52 percent) and Democrats (55 percent) want Obama to act immediately to institute a period during which banks cannot foreclose on delinquent mortgages.
One item on Obama's agenda that few said he needs to pursue in the short term is the shuttering of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Only among Democrats do a majority want him to attempt to close the facility, and even among them, more said he should do so later in his presidency.
In addition to sorting through a raft of popular proposals and navigating partisan minefields, Obama faces the challenge of high expectations.
Nearly seven in 10 are optimistic about Obama's overall policies, including substantial percentages of Republicans and those who backed GOP nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in last month's election (45 and 39 percent, respectively).
More than two-thirds said they think Obama will be able to make significant improvements to the health-care system, and as many expect him to implement policies to reduce global warming -- which 75 percent said he should, including half of Republicans. Sixty-four percent of all those polled said Obama will be able to end U.S. involvement in Iraq.
Slightly fewer than half said they think Obama will be able to do a "great deal" or "good amount" to turn around the economy, but substantial proportions across party lines expect him to make an impact on economic problems that have been years in the making. More than half, 55 percent, think he is off to a good start dealing with the economy.
Overall, Obama's work on the transition gets high marks -- 76 percent approve of the way he is handling it. Among Republicans, he scores 59 percent positive, compared with 39 percent last month. GOP support for Clinton also increased between his election in 1992 and his inauguration, only to nose-dive early in his tenure.
The poll was conducted from Dec. 11 to 14 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults interviewed on residential telephones or on cellphones. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; error margins for subgroups are higher.