By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 20, 2009
Heading into a critical period in the debate over health-care reform, public approval of President Obama's stewardship on the issue has dropped below the 50 percent threshold for the first time, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Obama's approval ratings on other front-burner issues, such as the economy and the federal budget deficit, have also slipped over the summer, as rising concern about spending and continuing worries about the economy combine to challenge his administration. Barely more than half approve of the way he is handling unemployment, which now tops 10 percent in 15 states and the District.
The president's overall approval rating remains higher than his marks on particular domestic issues, with 59 percent giving him positive reviews and 37 percent disapproving. But this is the first time in his presidency that Obama has fallen under 60 percent in Post-ABC polling, and the rating is six percentage points lower than it was a month ago.
Obama has taken on a series of major problems during his young presidency, but he faces a particularly difficult fight over his effort to encourage Congress to pass an overhaul of the nation's health-care system.
The legislation has run into problems in the House and Senate, as lawmakers struggle to contain spiraling costs and avoid ballooning the deficit.
Since April, approval of Obama's handling of health care has dropped from 57 percent to 49 percent, with disapproval rising from 29 percent to 44 percent. Obama still maintains a large advantage over congressional Republicans in terms of public trust on the issue, even as the GOP has closed the gap.
The erosion in Obama's overall rating on health care is particularly notable among political independents: While positive in their assessments of his handling of health-care reform at the 100-day mark of his presidency (53 percent approved and 30 percent disapproved), independents now are divided at 44 percent positive and 49 percent negative.
At the same time, there is no slackening in public desire for Obama to keep pressing for action on the major issues of the economy, health care and the deficit. Majorities think he is either doing the right amount or should put greater emphasis on each of these issues.
On health care, the poll, conducted by telephone Wednesday through Saturday, found that a majority of Americans (54 percent) approve of the outlines of the legislation now heading toward floor action. The measure would institute new individual and employer insurance mandates and create a government-run plan to compete with private insurers. Its costs would be paid in part through new taxes on high-income earners.
There are sharp differences in support for this basic package based on income, as well as a deep divide along party lines. Three-quarters of Democrats back the plan, as do nearly six in 10 independents. More than three-quarters of Republicans are opposed. About two-thirds of those with household incomes below $50,000 favor the plan, and a slim majority (52 percent) of those with higher incomes are against it. The income divide is even starker among independents.
Republicans have hammered the president and congressional Democrats over the cost of an health-care overhaul and its potential impact on the federal deficit, twin issues that have emerged as a possible brake on any new package.
Obama's approval rating on his handling of the deficit is down to 43 percent, as independents now tilt toward disapproval (42 percent approve; 48 percent disapprove).
More broadly, 55 percent of Americans put a higher priority on holding the deficit in check than on spending to boost the economy, compared with 40 percent who advocate additional outlays even if it means a sharply greater budget shortfall. This is a big shift from January, when a slim majority preferred to emphasize federal spending.
Independents, who split 50 percent to 46 percent for more spending in January, now break 56 percent to 41 percent for more fiscal discipline. But a larger shift has been among moderate and conservative Democrats, who prioritized more spending by about 2 to 1 in January and March. Now they are about evenly divided in approach.
Nearly a quarter of moderate and conservative Democrats (22 percent) now see Obama as an "old-style tax-and-spend Democrat," up from 4 percent in March. Among all Americans, 52 percent consider Obama a "new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public's money." That is down from 58 percent a month ago and 62 percent in March, to about where President Bill Clinton was on that question in the summer of 1993.
Concerns about the federal account balance are also reflected in views about another round of stimulus spending. In the new poll, more than six in 10 oppose spending beyond the $787 billion already allocated to boost the economy. Most Democrats support more spending; big majorities of Republicans and independents are against the idea.
Support for new spending is tempered by flagging confidence on Obama's plan for the economy. Fifty-six percent are confident that his programs will reap benefits, but that is down from 64 percent in March and from 72 percent just before he took office six months ago. More now say they have no confidence in the plan than say they are very confident it will work. Among independents and Republicans, confidence has decreased by 20 or more points; it has dropped seven points among Democrats.
Approval of Obama's handling of the overall economy stands at 52 percent, with 46 percent disapproving, and, for the first time in his presidency, more Americans strongly disapprove of his performance on the economy than strongly approve. Last month, 56 percent gave him positive marks on this issue.
More than three-quarters of all Americans say they are worried about the direction of the economy over the next few years, down only marginally since Obama's inauguration. Concerns about personal finances have also abated only moderately since January.
Obama declared ownership of the economic recovery, but the public still places far more blame on President George W. Bush's regulatory policies than on Obama's efforts for the state of the economy. But in the first read of a measurement that will be closely watched in coming years, nearly three in 10 say they are personally "not as well off" financially as they were when Obama took office.
Obama's leadership attributes remain highly rated, despite some slippage. Seven in 10 call him a strong leader, two in three say he cares about the problems of people like themselves, and just over six in 10 say he fulfilled a central campaign pledge and has brought needed change to Washington. However, he has dropped 10 points on the empathy question since April.
Obama still holds wide advantages over Republicans in Congress on the economy and the deficit, although the GOP has rebounded marginally from earlier in the year. The overall approval rating for congressional Republicans has increased six points since April, to 36 percent (compared with 47 percent approval for Democrats), and they have picked up five points vis-à-vis Obama on the deficit. They have gained seven on health care.
Beyond partisan shifts in Obama's ratings, sharp declines have occurred among those with household incomes above $50,000. And those with incomes above $50,000 now are split evenly between Obama and Republicans on dealing with health care. In June, they favored Obama by a 21-point margin.
A total of 1,001 randomly selected adults were interviewed for this poll; the margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.