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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Renee Montagne in Afghanistan. this week.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

I'm Steve Inskeep in Washington. Good morning.

One reason that it's so hard for Congress to agree on health care changes is that it's not certain the public agrees on what to do. NPR has brought together Republican and Democratic pollsters for our latest survey of what the public is thinking. Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: President Obama has the biggest bully pulpit in the world, and he's using it almost every day to talk about health care. But when likely voters in our survey were asked what they thought, only 42 percent said they favored the proposal now moving through Congress, while 47 percent opposed it. Glen Bolger is the Republican half of our polling team.

Mr. GLEN BOLGER (Public Opinion Strategies): That's a challenge you face when you try and make major policy changes in this country. People say, yes, health care's a problem, something needs to be done. But once you start getting into the specifics, then people say wait a minute, that's putting what I have at risk or that's going to cost more in taxes. But when you look at the intensity it's 25 strongly favor, 39 percent strongly oppose. And that is a very difficult proposition to sell when you've got that kind of strength of opposition against it.

LIASSON: Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says that's partly because of the legislative strategy the president has chosen, staying above the fray and letting Congress write the bills.

Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Pollster, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner): The price is that Congress is the stage upon which people are seeing the sausage being made, and it's not a pretty picture from the outside. At the moment the Democrats also look divided on this. And there's a reason why he wanted to see a plan before the break, because the country's not going to pay attention to him on what this plan's about until there's a plan to talk about.

LIASSON: No matter how much the president talks about his broad principles, Greenberg says what's getting through to voters are some specifics that worry them. Ester Walling(ph) of California, Angela Wrath(ph) of Georgia, and Carol Trivarthan(ph) of Pennsylvania shared their concerns when they responded to our poll.

Ms. ESTER WALLING: I don't want a government-run program. I don't trust the government to know what my body is telling me that it needs. That's for me to say and for my doctors to say.

Ms. ANGELA WRATH: I'm afraid I'll probably end up losing my medical plan.

Ms. CAROL TRIVARTHAN: I'm scared. My husband did 20 years in the military and we lived on 20 years of military government medicine and I wasn't too happy with it. And I feel it'd probably be about the same thing.

LIASSON: But Gertrude Duckett(ph) from Kansas and Helga Melman(ph) from California are willing to stick with the president, because they want the changes he's promising.

Ms. GERTRUDE DUCKETT: My main thing is to see them make services available to everybody, particularly those with preexisting conditions.

Ms. HELGA MELMAN: If we have to increase taxes a little bit, believe me, I would rather pay a little more in taxes and know I have a halfway decent health care system.

LIASSON: Stan Greenberg thinks the battle for public opinion on a health care overhaul is at a tipping point.

Mr. GREENBERG: I think it is a very, very serious period. That is there has to be movement before the recess. Doesn't mean necessarily passing of plans, but there needs to be movement in the Senate and the House, you know, prior to the break. I think the Democrats understand that.

LIASSON: In our poll, the president's approval rating is at its lowest level to date - 53 percent. But although voters think the economy is terrible, the number of voters who think the country is on the right track has doubled since last year. And people are optimistic about the future. Sixty-seven percent think a year from now things will be better. Stan Greenberg.

Mr. GREENBERG: I think we're both a little struck by the level of optimism about the future. Now, it's more about the economy as a whole. But still, 50 percent think their own personal finances will get better in the next year. That's both a good and concerning sign for the president. That is good in the sense I do think his policies will be seen as part of the progress if there's perceptible progress.

LIASSON: If there is progress. But if there's not Mr. Obama will get the blame. In our poll, most people still blame George Bush for the economic mess. But they were almost evenly split about whether the president's economic policies were helping, with the plurality saying they were not.

Republicans, as a party, remain less popular than either the president or the Democrats. But still, Glen Bolger feels better about his party's prospects.

Mr. BOLGER: As a Republican pollster, I would take going into October 2010 with the right direction of only 38 percent. It looks good in comparison to how bad things were in 2008. But 38 percent is not a particularly optimistic mood.

And when you look at some of the other indicators on here, it highlights problems for the president and for the Democrats. You have weakened presidential approval, where for the first time his strong disapproval has ticked above his strong approval rating.

LIASSON: And that imbalance in the intensity department is something pollsters watch carefully.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: We're glad you're getting your news from your local public radio station this morning. And when you check back later today to get updates at Npr.org you can also read more findings from that NPR poll.

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