Poll: Americans Wary of Changes to Medicare

President Barack Obama signs health care bill on March 23, 2010.
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
Sept. 11, 2012, 5:33 p.m.

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.

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