President Obama and Democrats maintain a sizable political advantage on the hot-button issue of Medicare, according to a new poll.
The latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll also shows plurality support for the much-maligned economic-stimulus package that was pushed through by Democrats at the start of Obama's presidency, as well as sharp divisions among different ethnic groups on questions about both the president's health care law and Medicare.
It is Medicare that has been thrust to the center of political debate since GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney tapped Rep. Paul Ryan, the architect of a Medicare overhaul plan, as his running mate. At every turn, Democrats are now accusing the GOP ticket of wanting to turn Medicare into a "voucher" program.
The poll helps explain why Democrats would use the term that Republicans emphatically reject: 54 percent of Americans in the survey said they trust Obama and congressional Democrats more to manage the financial health of Medicare, which provides health care to seniors. Only 31 percent said they trusted Romney and the GOP more.
Independents, a crucial voting bloc in November, gave Democrats their trust on the issue by a 22-point margin, 49 percent to 27 percent. The greater level of trust in Democrats extended across all income and education levels.
Young voters trust Democrats the most on Medicare. It is only among those 65 and older — an important demographic in several swing states — that trust between the two parties is evenly divided, at 43 percent.
Romney and the Republicans have tried to slice into the broad Democratic lead on the issue, especially by highlighting that Obama's health care law includes what they call $716 billion in Medicare "cuts."
But the survey held no better Medicare news for Republicans on that issue.
The poll showed that 56 percent of Americans, when told that the Medicare savings are earmarked to expand the Medicaid program for the poor and preventative health care, said that was a "good use" of those savings. Only 33 percent said it was not. Republicans, of course, prefer to frame the issue as Obama slashing Medicare to fund his health care plan.
There was a large ethnic divide in the Medicare-savings results. While half of whites — 50 percent — said it was a "good use" of Medicare savings, far more nonwhites, 74 percent, thought it was a good idea. Among whites, only among those 65 or older did a plurality believe it was a poor use of Medicare dollars.
The poll did offer some good news for Republicans. It showed a broad agreement that Medicare is headed toward fiscal trouble. More than two-thirds of Americans said that the decades-old health program is running out of money — a prominent GOP talking point. But Americans largely want the program to stay as it is anyway.
A supermajority of 67 percent said that Medicare should "continue as it is today," versus 27 percent who embraced changing "to a system where the government provides seniors with a fixed sum of money" to either buy private health insurance or pay for the cost of remaining in the current Medicare program.
The latter describes the plan outlined by Ryan, and the opposition to it is widespread, including among white Americans, with whom Obama generally has had more trouble connecting. A full 70 percent of working-class whites, those without college degrees, said they preferred that Medicare stay as it is; only 23 percent preferred the alternative overhaul.
If Democrats retain a comfortable margin of support on Medicare, they are more vulnerable on Obama's signature health care law. An even 50 percent of respondents said the law "makes things better" for the country overall — a relatively strong showing for the president. But many of those polled offered answers suggesting that they see the law, in effect, as a welfare program for the needy rather than a universal benefit that they could take advantage of like Medicare.
While 60 percent of respondents said the health law will make things better for those without health insurance, far fewer, 43 percent, said it would benefit "people like you and your family."
The 43-percent figure is 5 percentage points higher than when the Congressional Connection Poll last asked the question in June. But it remains a critical shortcoming for the president, who has sold his health care plan as one that benefits all Americans — particularly the middle class.
In the poll, a narrow plurality, 45 percent, said the law would make things better for the middle class, versus 40 percent who said it would not.
The racial gap in opinions about the health care law is severe. Only 34 percent of whites said it would improve life for "people like you and your family"; 62 percent of nonwhites felt that way, led by 83 percent of African-Americans.
More than seven in 10 nonwhites surveyed believe the law will "make things better" for the country overall, compared with only 40 percent of whites who feel that way.
The survey also asked about the controversial 2009 stimulus program that invested in roads, schools, and energy programs while cutting taxes. Republicans have used the measure as the poster child of government waste and corporate welfare.
Democrats, led by the president, have largely shied away from mentioning the stimulus on the campaign trail. In a rare break, former President Clinton touted the program by name (more than once) in his national convention speech. "The Recovery Act saved and created millions of jobs," he said.
In the survey, only 48 percent said they had heard "a lot" about the stimulus program more than three years after its enactment, and 37 percent had heard at least "a little." Fourteen percent said they had heard nothing about the program.
A plurality, 47 percent, said the stimulus package was good for the country, 31 percent said it was "bad," and 22 percent had no opinion.
The survey was conducted Sept. 7-9 with 1,012 respondents, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.