The White House’s claim that large and boisterous protests against health care reform over the past week have been scripted performances, underwritten by industry lobbyists and the Republican Party, continues to run into a stubborn reality check: public polling on the matter.
For more than two weeks, polls have consistently shown growing resistance to President Obama’s reform proposals, largely because of concerns about the nation’s deficit and debt.
“There are a number of statistically valid public opinion polls that show that there has been a dramatic increase in public concern about escalating deficits and debt levels and our nation’s increased reliance on foreign lenders,” said David Walker, the nation’s former comptroller general.
Mr. Walker, who as president of the nonpartisan Peter G. Peterson Foundation since 2008 has spearheaded an effort to raise public awareness about the country’s long-term fiscal problems, said that the American people are “ahead of their elected officials” in understanding the need to rein in spending before expanding health care coverage.
“They get it,” he said. “Costs are out of control, and they threaten the future of this country. And you cannot reduce cost by expanding coverage. That’s an oxymoron.”
Polls have not always shown outright opposition to the specifics of Mr. Obama’s desired goals — something his allies have been quick to point out, if only to argue that the overall numbers render the polls useless or are a sign of confusion among the electorate.
But within the same polls that show support for a government-run insurance option or for higher taxes on top earners, there has been disapproval of the president’s handling of health care reform. Those polls also show that support for Mr. Obama’s reforms are trumped by fears that government spending is running away with the country’s future.
“It’s easy for people to say they’re in favor of raising taxes on rich people and business, but when you ask them whether they’re in favor of increasing the deficit … [to do] health care, that’s a trade-off question and that’s the question that really matters,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
A Quinnipiac poll last week found “strong support for critical elements of the Obama/Democratic plan” but also found that the nation’s projected $1.8 trillion deficit was the overriding concern of the poll’s 2,409 respondents.
A majority, 57 percent, said health care reform should be abandoned if it will “significantly” add to the deficit. Mr. Obama has promised that any reform will not add to the budget imbalance, but 72 percent of the registered voters surveyed by Quinnipiac said they did not think Mr. Obama would be able to deliver on that vow.
A National Public Radio poll of 850 likely voters in late July showed that 48 percent thought the president’s policies have increased the federal deficit and done little to slow job loss, while 45 percent said Mr. Obama has blunted the recession and set a foundation for recovery. The poll also showed 47 percent opposition to the Obama health care reforms in Congress, with 42 percent support.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of 1,011 adults on July 30 showed that 42 percent thought the current health care reforms were a bad idea, while 36 percent thought them a good idea. More surprisingly, Republicans in Congress were more trusted to fix the budget deficit by a 31 percent to 25 percent margin, a drastic turnaround from January, when Democrats held the edge by a margin of 42 percent to 20 percent.
But a July 27 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 55 percent of 1,506 people surveyed still favored “spending more to make health care more accessible and affordable,” compared with the 40 percent who disagreed with that statement. However, that same poll showed 43 percent disapproval of Mr. Obama’s handling of the health care debate, 53 percent disapproval on the economy, and said that 44 percent “generally oppose” the health care proposals in Congress, while 38 percent generally favor them and 18 percent said they didn’t know.
The White House at first responded to the poll numbers by claiming that Americans were being influenced by “misinformation.” At one point in the middle of last week, an anonymous White House official told Politico that “poll numbers now, for health care, are up.”
When asked by The Washington Times to verify that latter statement, however, no one in the White House communications office would own up to the quote or defend it.
But as protests erupted a week ago and spilled onto the Internet via YouTube and the Drudge Report, the administration took a new tack. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the now-visible opposition “manufactured anger.”
The Democratic National Committee piled on, calling the protesters “mobs” and even saying they were being “bused in” to events by “by well-funded, highly organized groups run by Republican operatives and funded by the special interests.”
Brad Woodhouse, the DNC spokesman who made those accusations, said in an e-mail exchange that the evidence of protesters being bussed in came from “anecdotal reports” along with eyewitness accounts from some at an Aug. 2 forum in Philadelphia. The accounts said people saw buses from North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
On Friday, the White House political arm Organizing for America sent a video to its 13 million or so supporters in which OFA Director Mitch Stewart said that town-hall protesters are “trying to drown out public discourse and legitimate conversation on this issue.”
But Mr. Walker, the former comptroller, said the dissatisfaction being expressed was not a minority view but rather a reaction to the government’s arrogance, pointing to the polls as quantifiable evidence.
“What’s going on is there is increasing concern, which in some cases has turned to outrage, with how far out of touch and out of control Washington has become,” Mr. Walker said.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, also noted that polling was a problem for the Democrats’ attempts to delegitimize their opposition.
“If the polls were showing 80 percent support for Obama’s health care plan, if the polls were showing increasing support for Obama personally, then you could say, ‘Hey where are these people coming from?’ ” Mr. Norquist said. “But every poll shows that support for his plan or what they’re talking about doing on health care is plummeting, personal support for Obama is plummeting.”
Virtually every poll published during the last few weeks has shown the president’s job approval declining noticeably, under duress from growing dissatisfaction over his handling of health care and the economy, and also from his comments about a racially charged incident involving the arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white Boston police officer.
A Quinnipiac poll released Thursday showed Mr. Obama with a 50 percent approval rating and 42 percent disapproval rating, down from 57 percent approval and 33 percent disapproval one month earlier.
Regardless of how authentic the protest movement is or what is driving it, however, the White House said both publicly and privately that it felt it had equalized the problem by portraying the president as a reasonable, optimistic and positive force in contrast to the anger and vitriol of their opponents.
The White House said that the move away from a debate over the details of health care policy and into more broad characterizations of the president and his opposition works in its favor.
“I think we’ve been in an environment where we’ve been focused on the process of health care reform, and, I don’t think coincidentally, that has not been the most popular thing … the sort of sausage-making aspect of this,” Mr. Gibbs said last week.
The move reflects an attempt by the White House to rely on its best and most reliable asset: the president’s personal popularity. The July 27 Pew poll showed that 74 percent of people said they personally “like” Mr. Obama and the “kind of person he is,” while only 12 percent said they do not like him.
Jacki Schechner, a spokeswoman for Health Care for America Now, said of the town-hall protests that “anybody watching understands that it’s members of Congress trying to go home and talk to people about health care reform … and when people are trying to disrupt that intelligent conversation, it speaks for itself.”
“I don’t think they’re opponents of reform. I think they’re opponents of President Obama and the Democratic Congress,” Ms. Schechner said. “I don’t think they have opinions about health care. They’ve been told what to say and how to say it.”
(Corrected paragraph:) But Bob MacGuffie, a libertarian activist in Connecticut, said that it’s the White House and Democratic Party who “don’t get it.”
“They don’t understand. The White House believes in control, and this is not something you can control,” he said.
The previously unknown Mr. MacGuffie became a national figure last week when a memo he wrote with specific instructions for how to challenge public officials at town-hall meetings was used by liberal blogs and organizations such as Organizing for America, the White House political arm, as supposed evidence of a link between Washington advocacy groups and the town-hall protests.
“When you look at their response, all it is is denial of what people can see with their own eyes - misinformation, smears, lies and attacks,” he said. “If that’s all you can mount against us, I think the momentum is in our favor.”