The stakes for Obama

Both Bill McInturff, a Republican, and Peter Hart, a Democrat, are smart, reliable and gifted in their ability to gauge public opinion.

One of the most interesting findings in their latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was that Americans by and large like their president — but they’re not all that sure about his policies. Given the drubbing most mainstream media reported the president received in August, he emerged in relatively good shape. Fifty-six percent still give him a very positive or somewhat positive rating, and slim majorities approve of the job he’s doing as president, how he’s handling the economy and his execution of foreign policy. (Presidents almost always fare better than Congress in such match-ups; this poll was no exception, with only 22 percent approving of the job being done under the Capitol dome.) But a plurality of voters disapprove of how the president is handling healthcare reform. The numbers are virtually tied, with 45 percent approving and 46 percent disapproving, putting the difference well within the margin of error. Still, this and other measurements reported in the survey show that the long debate over healthcare reform has taken its toll.

Nearly twice as many voters think healthcare quality will get worse or stay the same than think it will improve if the president’s plans are implemented. A narrow plurality (41 percent to 39) think his plan is a bad idea even though they are not sure just what is in it. More Americans worry that proposed changes will go too far (48 percent) than that those changes are not doing enough to reform the system (44 percent). The most important takeaway is that voters are confused and wary. They do think the system needs to be reformed, but they are very nervous about what the changes will do to them. As I commented here last week, the case has not yet been made about what changes will do for them.

Overall, this survey paints a picture of a divided and troubled electorate that would like to believe the economy can be fixed, healthcare reformed and terrorism defeated in Afghanistan. But American voters are just not confident that is what the future has in store for them.

A majority don’t believe the economy has turned around yet. In fact, 52 percent say there is “still a ways to go before we hit bottom.” Nearly two-thirds worry more about keeping the deficit down than about “boosting the economy.” Only a narrow plurality think that the economic stimulus legislation passed early this year saved us from a greater economic downturn. Real people gauge the health of the economy by a different set of metrics than those used by economists and Wall Street — 58 percent of them will believe the economy has turned around only when there is more hiring and unemployment goes down. If past recessions are a guide, it will be some time before they see a healthy job market.

Nearly six in 10 Americans are not confident the war in Afghanistan will come to a successful conclusion. A narrow majority, 51 percent, oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan. Voters under 50, an important constituency for the president, are even less enthused about the war, with only 35 percent supporting a troop increase.

So we have a president who is generally liked but who is not thought to have accomplished much yet. His major achievement, economic stimulus, is not given credit for working. There is little confidence his healthcare plan will improve the quality of care Americans receive. He faces tough fights ahead over energy policy and financial reform. The president needs to win one, and his only shot is healthcare. He needs something that looks like reform to provide some policy heft to his general popularity and give him some leverage to deal other critical issues. Congressional Democrats need to set aside their internal bickering and settle on a simple package that gives Americans what they really want: insurance reform that guarantees coverage no matter pre-existing conditions, coverage that is affordable and coverage you can keep if you change or lose your job. Americans say that’s what they want, and if the president gives it to them, he’ll earn their confidence as well as their affection.

Goddard is a founding partner ofpolitical consultants Goddard Claussen.