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WASHINGTON - Two weeks since raucous congressional town-hall meetings on health care became a national story — and days after President Barack Obama began holding his own town halls — Americans remain skeptical about White House plans to overhaul the nation’s health system, according to a new NBC News poll.
A plurality believes Obama’s health plan would worsen the quality of health care, a result that is virtually unchanged from last month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. What’s more, only four in 10 approve of the president’s handling of the issue, which also is unchanged from July.
And a majority — 54 percent — is more concerned that the government will go too far in reforming the nation’s health care system, while 41 percent is more worried that the reform will not do enough to lower costs and cover the uninsured.
“Things have not changed radically in the past two weeks,” says Democratic pollster Jay Campbell of Hart Research Associates, which conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.
“But they have changed enough to illustrate an environment that has gotten tougher” for the White House, he says.
One of the reasons why it has become tougher is due to misconceptions about the president’s plans for reform.
Majorities in the poll believe the plans would give health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants; would lead to a government takeover of the health system; and would use taxpayer dollars to pay for women to have abortions — all claims that nonpartisan fact-checkers say are untrue about the legislation that has emerged so far from Congress.
Forty-five percent think the reform proposals would allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care for the elderly.
That also is untrue: The provision in the House legislation that critics have seized on — raising the specter of “death panels” or euthanasia — would simply allow Medicare to pay doctors for end-of-life counseling, if the patient wishes.
Obama, GOP approval
Obama’s overall approval rating in the poll is 51 percent, a two-point drop from last month and a 10-point decline since April.
Yet perhaps more troubling for the White House as it works to pass health care reform this year is that only 41 percent approve of his handling of health care. By comparison, 47 percent disapprove.
Moreover, just 36 percent believe that Obama’s efforts to reform the health system are a good idea, and only 24 percent think they will result in better quality of health care.
Bill McInturff, the GOP pollster who co-conducted the survey, says these numbers should signal a “cautionary light” for the White House. “There is a ‘go slower’ feel to this data.”
McInturff also observes that these numbers — which come after Obama embarked on a three-state swing (New Hampshire, Montana and Colorado) to hold town halls of his own — suggest that the White House’s counteroffensive was, “at best, break-even.”
But if the country is cautious about Obama’s health plans, it doesn’t seem to trust the Republican Party at all on the subject. Just 21 percent approve of the GOP’s handling of health care, versus 62 percent who disapprove.
Still, the country appears to be receptive to some type of health care reform. A combined 60 percent of respondents say the system needs either a “complete overhaul” or “major reform.” (Yet that combination has declined 10 points since April, and the percentage wanting a “complete overhaul” has dropped 12 points since that time.)
Also, while just 36 percent believe Obama’s efforts to reform the health system are a good idea, that number increases to 53 percent when respondents were read a paragraph describing Obama’s plans. (But that 53 percent is also a three-point drop since last month.)
On town-hall protests, the public option
This NBC poll was taken of 805 adults from Aug. 15-17, and has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.5 percentage points. It comes after protests have erupted across the country at congressional town-hall meetings on health care.
According to the survey, 16 percent say that what they have seen, read or heard about these protests have made them feel more favorable about Obama’s health plans. By contrast, 19 percent say the protests have made them feel less favorable, and 62 percent say they’ve made no difference.
In addition, 43 percent believe the protests have done more harm than good, versus a nearly identical 42 percent who say they’ve done more good than harm. Yet independents believe, by a 50-34 percent margin, that the protests have done more good.
The poll also comes after a new round of speculation over whether White House will drop its preference for a public/government option to compete against private health insurers.
In the poll, 43 percent say they favor a public option, versus 47 percent who oppose it. That's a shift from last month's NBC/Journal poll, when 46 percent said they backed it and 44 percent were opposed.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.