Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Gloomy Americans Bash Congress, Are Divided on Obama

Health Care Reform – Can’t Live With It, or Without It


As the day of reckoning for health care reform approaches, Americans have little to cheer about. Nearly everyone (92%) gives the national economy a negative rating. Closer to home, 85% say that jobs are hard to find in their community. A majority (54%) now says that someone in their household has been without a job or looking for work in the past year, compared with 39% in February 2009. And the proportion saying they got a pay raise or a better job in the past year fell from 41% in January 2008 to 24% currently.

Public gloom about the economy and personal finances extends to opinions about the future of health care costs. Regardless of what happens with the health care bills this week, Americans expect their own health care costs to rise in the coming years. While 51% say their health care costs would increase if the proposed legislation becomes law, even more (63%) believe their health care costs will increase if no changes are made to the health care system.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 10-14 among 1,500 adults, finds that public views of the health care bills before Congress remain more negative than positive – 48% generally oppose the bills before Congress while 38% favor them. But just 18% of Americans would prefer Congress pass nothing and leave the current system as it is.

It is in this context that attitudes toward Washington are best understood. When asked for a single word that best describes their impression of Congress, “dysfunctional,” “corrupt,” “self-serving” and “inept” are volunteered most frequently. Of people offering a one-word description, 86% have something negative to say, while only 4% say something positive.

Just 12% believe that Republicans and Democrats are working together in dealing with important issues facing the country – 81% don’t think so. While more blame Republican leaders than Democratic leaders for this (by 25% to 18%), fully 27% volunteer that both are to blame. And when asked which party has higher moral and ethical standards, neither party has an advantage – 31% name the Democratic Party, 29% name the GOP, while 22% volunteer neither.

The sour public mood and disillusionment with Washington is apparent in Barack Obama’s job approval ratings as well. For the first time in Pew Research Center survey, nearly as many say they disapprove (43%) of Obama’s job performance as approve (46%). Even so, Obama’s approval rating is well above the 31% who say they approve of the job the Democratic congressional leaders are doing and the 25% who give positive job ratings to GOP leaders.

Afghanistan Opinions More Positive

Obama’s ratings for dealing with specific issues are for the most part a little lower than his overall rating, which is typically the case for presidents. Roughly four-in-ten approve of the way Obama is handling foreign policy (42%), the economy (41%) and health care (39%).

An exception to this pattern is the public’s view of his handling of the situation in Afghanistan. In the new survey, more approve (51%) than disapprove (35%) of Obama’s job performance on Afghanistan; opinion was evenly divided in December 2009, while in November more disapproved than approved. Independents (51% approve) and Republicans (42%) give Obama much higher ratings on Afghanistan than other issues.

Republicans also are more likely than Democrats to think that things are going well in Afghanistan (61% vs. 52%). But perceptions of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan have improved overall since November. In addition, a clear majority of the public (59%) continues to say that the United States will definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals there.

Personal Views of Obama

While the public is divided over Obama’s job performance, many Americans continue to express positive personal opinions of him. Majorities see Obama as inspiring (61%) and decisive (57%), and relatively few regard him as arrogant (35%) or detached (35%). Many also say that Obama makes them feel hopeful (54%) and proud (49%). Just 30% say that Obama makes them angry, while somewhat more (44%) say he makes them feel disappointed.

Obama’s personal ratings are less positive than they were just after his election in November 2008. The changes in opinion of him have occurred across the political spectrum. But far fewer conservative Republicans say Obama is inspiring (61% to 25%) and far more say he makes them angry (18% to 62%). There also have been substantial changes in the views of independents: In November 2008, 68% said Obama made them feel hopeful; 48% say that today. Democrats are somewhat less positive about Obama than they were just after the election, but relatively small percentages see him as arrogant, detached or disappointing.

The survey finds that since the start of the year, most of the slippage in Obama’s job approval rating has come among Democrats – particularly Democrats with lower incomes. Currently, 74% of Democrats approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president, down from 84% in January. Obama’s approval rating is down 17 points over this period among Democrats with family incomes of less than $50,000 (from 83% to 66%), but is largely unchanged among those with incomes of $50,000 or more (89% to 84%).

Most Health Care Opponents Want New Bill

Opinion about the health care bills being discussed in Congress continues to be deeply split along partisan lines. Fully 81% of Republicans generally oppose the current bills while 62% of Democrats generally favor them. Far more independents still oppose (56%) than favor (32%) the health care bills.

While the current bills draw more opposition than support, opponents generally prefer that Congress begin working on a new bill (28% of the public) rather than pass nothing and leave the health care system as it is (18%).

Notably, 71% of the bills’ opponents say they expect their own health care costs will go up in coming years if the legislation is enacted – but 62% predict their costs will rise if no changes are made to the health care system. Among the supporters of the current bills, far more say their future costs will increase if nothing is done on health care (67%) than if the legislation passes (27%).

Job Problems Cut a Wide Swath

The number of Americans reporting that they or someone in their household has been without a job and looking for work in the past year has risen sharply; currently 54% say that, compared with 42% last October and 39% in February 2009.

People are experiencing other job and financial stresses at similar or slightly higher levels than in February 2009. Roughly one-in-five (21%) say they have lost their job or been laid off, while 15% say they have had their hours reduced or taken a pay cut.

Aside from job-related issues, about a quarter (26%) say they had trouble getting or paying for medical care for themselves or their family, while 24% say they have had problems making their rent or mortgage payment. Overall, 70% of Americans say they have faced one or more job or financial-related problems in the past year, up from 59% in February 2009.

Moreover, these concerns show no sign of easing in the future: 25% of those who are currently employed say it is very or somewhat likely they may be asked to take a cut in pay, 24% say it as least somewhat likely they may be laid off. Comparable proportions say it is very or somewhat likely their health care benefits (23%) or retirement benefits (22%) will be reduced or eliminated by their employer. These levels of concern are similar to February 2009.

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