By Steve Holland - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - He remains personally popular, but President Barack Obama is starting to see signs that some of his economic policies are causing doubts among many Americans.
Two polls published on Thursday illustrate the political risk Obama faces as he turns his attention toward an overhaul of the U.S. healthcare system, an issue so contentious that previous attempts have failed to address high cost and availability issues.
The New York Times/CBS News poll put his job approval rating at 63 percent, an impressive number given the high 9.4 percent unemployment rate.
In spite of his popularity, the polls showed a public concerned about deficit spending as a result of a $787 billion economic stimulus package and government intervention in the wake of the government’s bailout of banks and auto companies.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll said a solid majority of 58 percent believe Obama and Congress should focus on keeping the budget deficit down even if it means delaying a recovery. The deficit is forecast to skyrocket beyond $1 trillion for the 2009 fiscal year.
The Journal/NBC poll said 56 percent oppose giving financial aid to ailing automaker General Motors in exchange for the federal government obtaining a stake in the company.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Americans are “rightly frustrated with where the economy is and how we ended up where we did” and that Obama recognized all his decisions on fixing it were not popular.
”Some of those things are popular, some of those things aren’t popular, Gibbs told reporters. “I think the president would tell you he’s going to do what he thinks is in the best interest of the American economy.”
The Times/CBS poll showed that Obama has his work cut out for him on healthcare. It gave him 44 percent approval in his handling of the issue, with 34 percent disapproving, a sign that many are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“What the polls suggest to me is that there is concern from a lot of Americans about the government being too intrusive in directing the affairs of businesses and corporations and individuals,” said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “It’s not popular that the government owns 60 percent of General Motors.”
Black said Obama needs to have a full discussion with Americans about the ramifications of the healthcare proposals, both the costs and the impact on their medical plans.
“This is one where if the programs are implemented and they don’t turn out to be satisfactory to voters, there’s a huge (political) price to this,” he said.
Pollster John Zogby said the surveys showed that after nearly five months in office, “Americans really are enamored with the messenger,” but less so with his message while still willing to give him more time.
“I think it’s best to look at Obama in terms of six-month leases,” he said. “He’s got a six-month lease coming up. He’ll get that lease renewed. But during the second lease, Americans are going to have to see some kind of progress.”
Republicans are increasingly trying to raise doubts about Democratic proposals for a healthcare plan estimated to cost many billions of dollars, pointing to the cost of the stimulus plan as an example of why skepticism is needed.
The two-year stimulus plan has had little noticeable impact so far on improving the jobless picture.
“Once again, it’s rush and spend, and rush and spend -- and a tidal wave of debt,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on Wednesday.
Opinions were split about Obama’s policies among Americans randomly interviewed by Reuters correspondents around the United States.
Lauren Carter, 27, an account executive in Atlanta, said she voted for Obama and likes what she sees so far.
“It seems that things are going upwards so I would say he’s doing a good job. At the beginning people said things were going to get worse. Our economy is still hurting but it’s on its way to getting better,” she said.
Bill Austin, an executive in the Phoenix valley, said he was tired of hearing Obama complain that he had inherited the economic mess from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Austin said he thought Obama’s stimulus package has had little effect and would create more problems in the future by deepening the deficit.
“The economy would have recovered with or without it (the stimulus),” Austin said.
Nadeem Akhtar, 45, a convenience store manager in a Dallas suburb, said he thought Obama was not out of line to consistently point out the problems he inherited.
“We have a big mess from the previous administration,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Matthew Bigg in Atlanta, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Ed Stoddard in Dallas; editing by Philip Barbara)