WASHINGTON - As the young Obama administration spends trillions of dollars in its effort to turn around the nation’s economy and revive the U.S. auto industry, the American public is growing concerned about the size of the budget deficit and the government’s intervention into the private sector, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds.
Nearly seven in 10 have serious reservations about the federal government’s ownership stake in General Motors. Almost 60 percent say that President Obama and Congress should worry more about keeping the deficit down — even if that means it will take longer for the economy to recover. And fewer than half of Americans have confidence in the president’s policies to improve the economy.
Obama remains a popular figure in the poll. But these numbers on the deficit and the government’s intervention seem to mark a new period for the administration, as the public moves from welcoming his inauguration and first days in office to examining his initial actions as president.
And looking ahead to the items Obama wants to tackle — like reforming health care and curbing greenhouse gases — Hart observes that the bar has been raised.
“There is no more smooth sailing for the administration. They are going to have to navigate in pretty choppy waters.”
McInturff agrees, although he adds that the president’s continued personal popularity gives him “the latitude to ask for major action and major change.”
Independents now split on Obama
According to the poll, 60 percent view Obama favorably, versus just 29 percent who see him in a negative light. Also, three-quarters of the public say they like him personally, and that number includes 27 percent who don’t like his policies.
But the president’s overall approval rating is at 56 percent, which is down five percentage points from April.
The drop mainly comes from independents, who backed Obama by 60 percent to 31 percent in April, but approve of him now by a 46-44 clip.
Yet perhaps the most troubling numbers in the poll for Obama come on questions about the administration’s intervention in the private sector, especially to help save troubled General Motors.
Public sours on GM intervention, deficit
Fifty-six percent oppose Obama’s action to provide financial aid to GM, in return for a majority stock in the company. Additionally, a whopping 69 percent say they’re concerned “a great deal” or “quite a bit” about the government’s ownership of the automaker.
In an interview Tuesday with CNBC’s John Harwood, Obama maintained that these interventions didn’t begin on his watch. “When I came in … the previous administration had already put in $10 billion to shore up the auto companies and asked nothing in return,” he said.
“Now, I had three choices. I could continue giving them money without asking anything in return, I could let them liquidate in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression, or we could say, ‘We don't want to run your company. Would you show us a plan that allows you to stand on your own two feet, so that what we're providing is a meaningful bridge for you to get to a better future?’”
Obama concluded, “We chose option three. That's not something that we welcomed, and the sooner we can get out the better.”
Also in the poll, 58 percent say the president and Congress should worry more about keeping the deficit down, even if that means that it would take longer for the economy to recover.
By comparison, only 35 percent say the bigger worry should be boosting the economy, even if that adds to the size of the deficit.
But not blaming Obama
Despite their concerns, the American public isn’t blaming Obama for some of the current problems he’s facing. Asked who was more responsible for the size of the deficit, 46 percent cited the Bush administration, 21 percent said the Democrats in Congress, 7 percent said the Republicans in Congress and just 6 percent said the Obama administration.
In addition, 72 percent believe that the current state of the economy is something Obama inherited rather than created.
Even though the public remains pessimistic about the economy — just 12 percent say they are satisfied with it — the poll does show a bit of optimism with 46 percent expecting the economy to improve in the next year.
That’s up eight points since April, and it’s the highest percentage on that particular question since January 2004.
Health care, Sotomayor
On the topic of health care, the poll shows that more than three-quarters believe it’s important for Americans to have a choice between a public/government insurance plan and a private one. But if a government-run option is established, 47 percent of those who hold private insurance say it’s “very” or “somewhat” likely their employer would drop their plans.
As McInturff, the GOP pollster, puts it: “It’s hard to change the status quo when you have people who have been well served by the status quo.”
Also, when asked how they would prefer to finance health-care reform, 59 percent oppose taxing those with generous health benefits, while 70 percent oppose taxing everyone’s health benefits.
Regarding Obama Supreme Court pick Sonia Sotomayor, the poll finds that her numbers compare favorably to — or even exceed — John Roberts’ and Samuel Alito’s. By a 43-20 percent margin, Americans support her nomination, and 50 percent believe she’s qualified to sit on the Supreme Court.
“Her numbers … are very strong,” McInturff says.
Other odds and ends
The poll — which was taken of 1,008 adults from June 12-15, and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — also contains these findings:
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.