STEVE INSKEEP, host:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.
ARI SHAPIRO, host:
And I'm Ari Shapiro, filling in for Renee Montagne.
President Obama gives his first State of the Union speech tonight. It's an opportunity to appeal to Americans who are frustrated with the economy and White House policies over the last year. The president plans to talk about job creation and economic growth, and those are the top priorities for voters according to a new NPR survey conducted by Republican Glen Bolger and Democrat Stan Greenberg. Our survey also shows that voters have soured on the president's number one legislative priority, an overhaul of the country's health care system.
NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.
MARA LIASSON: In our poll there are plenty of danger signs for the Democrats. In one indicator, studied closely by both parties as they gear up for the midterm elections, likely voters, by five points, chose the generic Republican over the Democrat on a hypothetical congressional ballot. And Republican Glen Bolger points out that edge is more pronounced among people whose interest in the midterms is high.
Mr. GLEN BOLGER (Republican Political Strategist): So while it's a five-point lead overall, among the most interested voters, that lead doubles. And we saw that take effect in Virginia, we saw that take effect in New Jersey gubernatorial race, and we saw it take effect in the Massachusetts Senate race as well.
LIASSON: Our likely voters are evenly divided about the president's job performance. Forty nine percent approve, 48 percent disapprove and pollster Stan Greenberg's Democrats have to be worried by the fact that by two to one, voters think the country is on the wrong track.
Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Democratic Pollster): I mean, it's not hard to understand Massachusetts when you get a poll back like this. That tells you a lot about the mood in the country. That measure captures the sense of presidential leadership, it captures gridlock, it captures missed priorities, you know, it captures what's going, you know, with health care.
LIASSON: Health care is the most immediate political problem for the president. He was just about to cross the finish line before Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts deprived the Democrats of their filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. In our poll, likely voters oppose the president's plan 55 to 39 percent. Jack Raffa(ph) is a bank examiner from Pottsville, Pennsylvania, who doesn't like how the health care bill was written.
Mr. JACK RAFFA: They seem to be making backroom deals and doing it behind closed doors. If it's such a good thing, everybody should know about it and be happy about it. If they have to hide it, there's a reason they're hiding things.
LIASSON: Roger Williams(ph), from Noble, Louisiana, describes himself as a not-so-strong Democrat. He objects to the fact that health care pushed everything else aside.
Mr. ROGER WILLIAMS: That's all you see on TV, health care, health care, health care. There's a lot on his plate, I understand that. The man inherited a good mess, but he's also made it even messier. Why they want this health care is so bad - but go ahead and do that, but also worry about other things. Don't just forget about the other problems that we've got.
LIASSON: Our survey suggests the Democrats are being punished for not getting health care done, as much for what's in the bill itself. Stan Greenberg.
Mr. GREENBERG: Had this passed before Christmas, we would be in a very different situation than we are now. And what people believe this bill is, is taxes on health benefits or special deals for Nebraska. What they don't see is the barring insurance companies from discriminating and everybody being guaranteed they can't lose health insurance. You're only going to get that if you pass health insurance.
LIASSON: And that is still a very big if, since the Democrats no longer appear to have the votes. There is one bright spot for the president in our poll. Of all the issue arguments we tested on the economy, health care, energy, national security, the only one that gives Democrats a sizable advantage is the president's proposed bank tax. Stan Greenberg.
Mr. GREENBERG: The problem with Wall Street bailouts, you know, is very much at the heart of problems plaguing incumbents and plaguing Democrats. And in our polling, more people think Democrats are responsible for, you know, bailouts than helping the middle class. So the fee on the banks wins a lot of support.
LIASSON: Most of President Obama's agenda has united the Republicans in opposition, but his position on taxing the banks is one of the few things that has the potential to drive a wedge through Republican ranks. Glen Bolger.
Mr. BOLGER: I think there is going to be a lot of pressure on them, because the push-back message, it's nowhere near as strong as the Democrat attack. The banks are in a tough spot on winning this policy fight.
LIASSON: And so are Republicans, if they take up the bankers' cause. Tonight, when he delivers his State of the Union address, President Obama will have an opportunity to press his new populist charge against Wall Street and to speak directly to the concerns of voters like Jackie Yoon(ph), a homemaker from Oklahoma City. This is what she wants to hear from the president.
Ms. JACKIE YOON: How to help Americans get back to work. I'm not so concerned about the rich, because they're not hurt. But it's the middle class, you know, the lower middle class that's hurting. And it seems like nobody cares about us, so I hope he concentrates on that.
LIASSON: The State of the Union is the kind of big set piece speech the president has been able to use to good advantage in the past. But when he was a candidate, the nation's problems were a wind at his back. Tonight as president, he finds them very much in his face.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
SHAPIRO: You can find more results from our poll of likely voters at npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.