By Jennifer Agiesta and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 29, 2010; A08
After steering the landmark health-care reform bill through Congress, the Democratic Party's leaders have emerged mostly unscathed, according to a new Washington Post poll, but they have not received a notable boost in approval ratings.
Shifts among core constituencies suggest that President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) may have reaped some benefit from the legislation's passage, but the public's take on the Democratic Party has not budged, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) appears to be losing popularity. None of the central players in passing health-care reform appears to be winning favor with the bill's opponents.
Views on Pelosi tilt negative but are closely divided, with 42 percent approving of the way she is handling her job as speaker, and 46 percent disapproving, in line with her ratings in a January Post-ABC News poll. Although her overall rating is stable, the survey finds the speaker gained in strong support among Democrats, liberals and those who support the reform package.
In a follow-up interview, poll respondent John Murtha, 52, of Orlando said: "I think she did good. I think she does what her job is, and that's to pull together her people, and get it passed. That would've been a hard job if she wasn't a good, effective speaker."
There has been no such bump for the Democrats' leader in the Senate. Reid's overall approval rating has ticked downward, from 35 percent in January to 29 percent now, and among Democrats, it has dipped from 57 percent to 45 percent. With Reid facing a stiff challenge in his reelection bid, approval in the Western states -- his home region -- has dropped to 23 percent. Not all of this decline corresponds with an increase in disapproval, however, as one-quarter of people express no opinion about the majority leader, up from 18 percent in January.
The poll shows that approval of Obama's handling of health-care reform climbed five percentage points, to 48 percent, after the bill's passage, boosted by a 10-point increase among those who support the changes. Overall, strong approval of Obama on the issue rose nine percentage points, to 33 percent, with strong disapproval remaining higher, at 43 percent.
The share of Americans who say Obama has brought needed change to Washington edged up in the poll, to 54 percent from 50 percent at the beginning of the year. The increase comes largely among Democrats and those who voted for Obama in 2008, perhaps signaling a retrenchment among his core supporters.
Barbara Cornell, 58, a poll respondent from Yukon, Okla., said she thinks Obama has followed through on his campaign promise of change. "He's stepped up, finally, and made a move," she said. "I feel like the Democrats are doing something very proactive, and it reinforces my view of that and unfortunately reinforces my negative view of Republicans and how they are really being stubborn."
The passage of the health-care legislation may be a pivotal point for those backers: Nine in 10 who support the reform package say Obama has brought needed change, up from 78 percent in January. Opponents of the bill see it differently, with nearly eight in 10 saying the president has failed to deliver change to Washington, and six in 10 among that group saying he is unwilling to listen to different points of view.
More broadly, Obama has not made gains outside of his core supporters in overall approval rating or on several central attributes. About two-thirds consider him a strong leader, and 56 percent say he "understands the problems of people like you," both about the same as in January. A broad majority (68 percent) say he is willing to listen to different points of view, though that has dropped more than 20 percentage points since the 100-day mark of his presidency.
Pat McAllister, 62, another respondent, said, "I sort of felt, well, you know, everyone's just giving him a bad rap and all that stuff, but the more I see now and the more that he does, the more upsetting it becomes to me that he really wasn't what he said he was." McAllister finds the negative tone in Washington upsetting. "It makes me really sad to think that we can't even talk to each other anymore, Democrats and Republicans," she said, "at least before, they weren't so far apart that you couldn't talk."
Overall negative views of Congress and the direction of the country continue in the new poll. Just 24 percent approve of the way lawmakers are doing their job, with a majority expressing "strong" disapproval. Congressional approval ticked upward among Democrats and those who support the health-care changes, but among Republicans and those who oppose the legislation, Congress's approval rating dipped to single digits.
McAllister, who opposed the bill, said she plans to express her displeasure with lawmakers in November. "I was going to vote anyway, but I'm damn sure going to vote now. This is not the way I want my country to be."
Neither major party has seen much change in favorability ratings in the new poll. Half hold positive views of the Democratic Party, 40 percent of the Republicans and strongly unfavorable opinions outweigh strongly favorable ones for both parties. Independents are more favorably disposed to Democrats (46 percent say they have a positive take on Democrats; 39 percent on Republicans), though 22 percent hold unfavorable views of both parties.