Bottom-line views on health care reform have stabilized but failed to improve since President Obama addressed the nation, leaving him with a continued challenge in selling his plan to a public that remains skeptical about its benefits and costs alike.
Obama shows some improvement. He's stanched his losses, shored up his base and gained on a few specifics. But his speech was no game-changer: Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll divide by 48-48 percent on his handling of the issue and by 46-48 percent on the reform package itself, both essentially the same as their pre-address levels.
More continue to think reform will worsen rather than improve their own care, costs and coverage. There's still a nearly even split on whether it'll improve care for most people in general. More think it'll weaken rather than strengthen Medicare. And nearly two-thirds think it'll boost the already vast federal deficit.
Perhaps worst for the president, in interviews following his nationally televised address to a joint session of Congress, Americans by 54-41 percent say that the more they hear about health care reform, the less they like it. And while he still leads the Republicans in Congress in trust to handle reform, he's lost 7 points in this measure, and they've gained 9, since June.
Still, Obama has possibilities. He's cut into suspicions that reform will force change on people who don't want it – albeit just to an even split. And if the much-debated "public option" is dropped, support for reform inches ahead, albeit to a still-tepid 50 percent, while opposition slips to 42 percent.
In making their case, both parties face a fundamental challenge: Democratic allegiance has slipped to a two-year low in this poll and Republican affiliation is back near its lowest ever; instead 43 percent of Americans now identify themselves as independents, the most since ABC/Post polls began 28 years ago.
HEALTH CARE: SPLIT – The results do not show wholesale opposition to health care reform; rather, on the most basic measures, essentially an even division. Given the level of concerns, that underscores the extent of dissatisfaction with the current system, the vein Obama has sought to mine. Indeed more still say reform is necessary (53 percent, though down from 58 percent in June) than say it'll do "more harm than good" (44 percent).
On the plus side for Obama, this is the first ABC/Post poll since April in which his support for handling of health care did not lose ground. There's been a slight gain in his "strong" support. In addition to the president's continued if diminished lead over the Republicans in trust to handle the issue, he has a large advantage in being seen as trying to cooperate on it.
Bill Clinton took an immediate but short-lived 13-point bounce in support out of his health care address Sept. 22, 1993. Obama shows no such gain. The questions now are whether the current division holds – and if so whether it's enough for the arm-twisting in Congress that lies ahead.