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Virginians Divided On Obama's Actions
Poll Shows Support for President But a Split Over Reform Initiative

By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Most Virginians are satisfied with their health care and, despite deep concerns about future costs, there is broad public skepticism about the reforms advocated by President Obama that are under consideration in Congress, according to a Washington Post poll.

Obama gets solid overall marks as president, but on his biggest domestic initiative, health care, Virginians are divided down the middle: 49 percent approve of his actions; 48 percent disapprove. On this and other issues, more Virginians are strongly opposed to his stewardship than fervently in favor.

Virginia played a significant role in last year's election, with Obama becoming the first Democratic presidential nominee since 1964 to carry the state. At the midpoint in a month of public debate and advocacy, the findings from Virginia offer insights into the difficult terrain Obama and his allies are attempting to navigate as they seek to enact major health-care reform. Given the high levels of public satisfaction with the quality and current cost of care and insurance, spurring greater support for changes is proving difficult.

"I feel like he kind of came out of the gate all fire and brimstone about the economy," said Phil Mathews, 24, a Richmond resident who works for a law firm. "Then he just decided to shift gears. . . . I think it's a little inappropriate, to tell you the truth. I see America as having a whole bunch of other problems right now, so I don't see why he's so focused on this."

Half of Virginia adults in the poll said government reform of the health-care system is necessary to control costs and expand coverage. Nearly as many, 47 percent, said that any government action would do more harm than good. If the president and Congress push forward with reform, more than twice as many Virginians said their care would probably get worse than think it would improve.

The context is crucial: Majorities in the state are content with the quality of their health care, its costs and their insurance coverage (among the 87 percent who said they have it). Fewer, but still a majority, said they are satisfied with the health-care system broadly.

There are sharp partisan divisions over health care, with Virginia Democrats strongly supportive of Obama's initiatives and Republicans strongly opposed. Among independents, 44 percent said reform would probably leave them with lower quality health care, compared with 18 percent who anticipate better care as a result.

Independents, who were critical in Obama's victory in Virginia last fall, are also worried about the potential growth of the federal government under Obama, but only barely more than they were under the previous administration. Fifty-eight percent said government in Washington is trying to do too many things. They are even more negative about the federal budget deficit, with 61 percent saying they disapprove of Obama's handling of the issue -- his lowest marks on any issue in the poll.

Among all Virginians, 57 percent said they approve of the way he is handling his job as president. Among independents, Obama gets slim majority approval. On the specific issues tested in the Post poll -- health care, the deficit, taxes, energy policy and the economy -- he gets less than 50 percent approval in each category among independents.

Sean Farrell, 37, an independent from Chesapeake, Va., who participated in the poll, said, "There's not been anything yet that Obama's done that I've been supportive of. He's rushing too fast and spending so much money that it really does concern me."

Despite the problems Obama faces in trying to sell his initiatives to Virginians, there are three elements that sustain him politically: He is not Congress, he is not former president George W. Bush and there is broad hope that the stimulus package will benefit the state's economy.

Virginians said they have far greater confidence in Obama to make the right decisions for the country's future than in either congressional Democrats or congressional Republicans. Fifty-two percent expressed confidence in Obama, compared with 26 percent who said they have faith in congressional Republicans and 36 percent who said the same of congressional Democrats.

On the economy, the dominant issue in Virginia as it is elsewhere, Obama escapes the wrath of voter dissatisfaction. Only 30 percent said Obama bears "a great deal" or "a good amount" of the blame for the economy's current problems. Sixty-three percent cite the Bush administration's failure to regulate the financial industry as a far bigger cause of the recession.

Equally important, nearly six in 10 of those polled said Obama's federal stimulus package has or will boost Virginia's economy. Democrats overwhelmingly anticipate direct benefits for the state. Most Republicans are dubious, and independents are split more or less down the middle: 53 percent said the $787 billion plan has or will help the state's economy; 47 percent said it will not.

Amy Darden, a teacher who lives in Haymarket and describes herself as "definitely pro-Obama," urges patience. "Not everything is going to get done in four years or even eight years. It didn't take just four years to get into this mess. It'll take a whole lot more to get out."

The health-care debate also has the potential to shape the November gubernatorial contest between former Republican state attorney general Robert F. McDonnell and state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath). Health care ranks as the second-most important issue behind the economy, and nearly a quarter of voters call health care or health reform their first or second-most critical issue in deciding how they will vote, according to the Post poll.

Deeds has a narrow edge among those who cite health issues as a priority, but he trails McDonnell in the overall ballot test by seven percentage points among all voters.

There is also a major partisan divide on another controversial topic, the proposal to reform energy policy around a "cap-and-trade" system. Virginians are about evenly split on the idea, with 47 percent in favor and 43 percent opposed. Most Democrats, 67 percent, back the plan; most Republicans are against it.

The deep party-line patterns on energy, health care and other issues expose the fundamental importance of the state's partisan makeup in all of these debates. Last fall, Obama benefited from a dramatic shift in party identification away from the GOP, but in this poll, the balance has shifted back to its more common levels, with a basic parity between Democrats and Republicans in Virginia.

The poll was conducted Aug. 11-14 among a random sample of 1,002 Virginia adults on conventional and cellular telephones. The margin of error for the full survey is three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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