October 8, 2009

Mixed Views of Economic Policies and Health Care Reform Persist

Support for Health Care Principles, Opposition to Package

Overview

Public opinion is conflicted regarding the two major domestic issues of the day – the economy and health care reform. On the economy, most Americans remain optimistic that Barack Obama’s policies will help, but the public expresses mixed views of the steps he has taken so far and sees no clear signs of recovery at this point.

Regarding health care reform, many of the key provisions remain popular though support for the overall package has slipped. More people now generally oppose the health care reform proposals in Congress (47%) than favor them (34%). This represents a decline in support for health care reform since mid-September, shortly after President Obama’s nationally televised address to Congress on the issue.

Nonetheless, large percentages continue to support many of the essential elements of legislation being considered. Two-thirds (66%) favor mandating that all Americans have health insurance, with the government providing financial help for those unable to afford it. Nearly six-in-ten (59%) favor requiring employers to pay into a government health care fund if they do not provide health insurance coverage to their employees. A similar majority (58%) also favors raising taxes on families with incomes of more than $350,000 as a way to pay for reforms. And 55% say they favor a government health insurance plan to compete with private plans, which is largely unchanged from late July (52%).

The disconnect between support for specific elements of health care legislation and overall opposition to the proposals in Congress appears to be driven by a lack of understanding about what is being proposed, the complexity of the topic, and declining trust in Congress. The percentage of Americans saying they have heard a lot about the bills in Congress to overhaul the health care system fell from 60% in mid-September to 46% currently. A separate weekly News Interest Index survey, released Oct. 8, found that a substantial majority of Americans (66%) continue to find the issue of health care reform “hard to understand.”

At the same time, job approval ratings for Democratic leaders in Congress have plummeted, from 47% in March to 33% currently. Approval ratings for Republican congressional leaders now stand at 24%, which is down slightly from March (28%). This is the lowest approval measure for GOP leaders in 15 years of Pew Research Center surveys.

Obama’s job approval ratings, while lower than early this year, have been stable in recent months; currently, 52% approve of the way he is handling his job as president, while 36% disapprove. Half of Americans say they have a great deal (20%) or a fair amount (30%) of confidence in him to do the right thing on health care reform; confidence in Obama on this issue was somewhat higher in late August (56%). A larger percentage of the public says they have confidence in the president to fix the economy (59%), while nearly as many (57%) say they are optimistic his policies will improve economic conditions.

The latest survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 30-Oct. 4 among 1,500 adults reached on cell phones and landlines, finds mixed reactions to many of Obama’s economic policies. Opinion is evenly split over his economic stimulus plan, with 44% approving of the $800 billion package; in June, a 55% majority favored the stimulus. On the other hand, 70% say that the government spending billions on public works projects has been mostly good for the economy. Opinions are far less positive about the government extending loans to major financial institutions (39% mostly good) and automakers G.M. and Chrysler (37% mostly good).

A majority (54%) continues to say that it is a good idea for the government to more strictly regulate the way financial companies to do business, down from 60% in April. Notably, just 28% say the government has made a great deal or some progress in fixing the problems that caused last fall’s crisis in the financial markets.

For many, the jury is still out regarding the overall impact of Obama’s policies: 46% say they have had no effect so far or that it is too soon to tell. Nearly a third (31%) says they have made the economy better, while 20% say his policies have made economic conditions worse. In July, 49% said Obama’s policies had had no effect or that it was too early to tell, while about as many said they had made things worse (21%) as better (24%).

The public’s assessment of Obama’s impact is consistent with its own view of economic conditions. There has been no increase in recent months in the proportion of Americans who rate the national economy positively. Nor have there been increases in the percentages expecting either the nation’s economy or their own financial situation to improve in the next 12 months.

As has been the case since the beginning of the year, considerably more people worry about the jobs situation than about inflation, the stock market or real estate values. Fully 79% say that jobs are hard to come by in their communities and even more (84%) say that good jobs are hard to find.

For all the reports about rising contentiousness over major issues, there has been little change since spring in opinions about whether the country is more politically divided than in the past. Currently, 64% say the country is more politically divided, which is largely unchanged from April (61%), though up substantially from January (46%) shortly before Obama’s inauguration. The current measure is in line with opinions during President George W. Bush’s second term.

Judgments about Obama’s ideology also have changed little in recent months. Currently, 44% say he listens more to liberal members of his party, compared with 32% who say he listens more to party moderates. In July, 41% said Democratic liberals had Obama’s ear.

One of the more surprising findings of the current survey is the expressed willingness of the opponents of health care reform to compromise on this issue. A clear majority of opponents (62%) – many of whom say they very strongly oppose health care reform proposals – say they would prefer to see opponents compromise with supporters to make the legislation better, rather than try to prevent a bill from passing.

Notably, supporters of health care reform – who are less likely than opponents to register very strong opinions about the proposals – are less inclined to compromise. Fewer than four-in-ten (38%) say policymakers who support health care reform should compromise with opponents, while 57% say they should try to make the bill as strong as possible.