Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona McCain faces a tough primary challenge from conservative former talk show host J.D. Hayworth. Inevitably McCain was asked about the views of his opponent on Meet the Press Sunday. Host David Gregory reminded McCain that Hayworth’s Web site calls President Obama’s agenda “socialist.” Gregory then asks McCain if the term “socialist agenda” goes too far. McCain demurred from a direct answer, telling Gregory that he should ask Hayworth to explain his own views. (Of course, McCain could have riffed into a discussion of Gallup’s recent data exploring Americans’ reaction to the term "socialism." He didn’t.)
But, of more immediate interest is what McCain said thereafter:
Look, look, there is no doubt in my mind America's a right-of-center nation and this administration is governing from the left. That's why the president's approval rating's continued to, to decline.
Are the president’s approval ratings continuing to decline? Certainly not recently. Obama’s ratings have of course declined from the point at which he first took office. Obama began with a 67% rating in his first week in office. He had a 50% average last week, more than a year later. But, Obama’s ratings have actually been remarkably stable in recent months, as reviewed in some depth by my colleague Jeff Jones. McCain’s use of the word “continue” implies that Obama's ratings are still sliding -- right up to this point in time. And that’s not the case.
The stability of Obama’s job approval ratings at and around the 50% level has occurred despite the continuing less-than-stellar economy, the failure of his healthcare plan to find majority support nationally, and the criticism coming at Obama from conservatives and Republicans. Contextually, Obama’s ratings compare fairly well to Clinton’s and Reagan’s at this same point in their administrations. Clinton was at 53% in late February 1994 (he fell to 39% by August and September of that year) and Reagan was at 46% in March of 1982 (he fell to 35% by January of 1983).
Of course, none of these presidents did as well as the Bushes, I should point out. Bush senior was at 68% in March 1990. George W. Bush at 81% in March 2002.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi made a glancing reference to -- I think -- public opinion relating to Medicare in her comments over the weekend. She said:
“Our members, every one of them, wants health care,” Ms. Pelosi said. “They know that this will take courage. It took courage to pass Social Security. It took courage to pass Medicare. And many of the same forces that were at work decades ago are at work again against this bill.”
“But,” Ms. Pelosi continued, “the American people need it. Why are we here? We’re not here just to self-perpetuate our service in Congress. We’re here to do the job for the American people, to get them results that give them not only health security, but economic security.”
Pelosi reminds us that it was a difficult challenge for Congress to pass Social Security and Medicare. Was she implying that these difficulties arose in part because the public was against these programs, as theycurrently tilt against healthcare reform legislation? Based on her follow-up comments, this seems like a reasonable inference.
We don’t have much relevant poll data in and around the time of the creation of Social Security in 1935. However, Medicare was signed into law in 1967 -- a time period from which we have a bit more data.
A few years ago, my Gallup colleague Julie Ray reviewed Gallup polling data from the 1960s as Medicare was being proposed and debated.
In March 1962, Gallup asked about two approaches for "meeting the hospital costs of older persons". The results: A majority of Americans favored a plan which would “cover persons on Social Security and would be paid by increasing the Social Security tax deducted from pay checks” when contrasted to a plan that would “let each individual decide whether to join Blue Cross or buy some form of voluntary health insurance.”
Of interest is Ray’s finding that “In 1962, a clear majority of Democrats, 65%, preferred the Social Security approach, while a majority of Republicans (52%) said they preferred the private insurance approach. Political independents' preferences were closer to those of Democrats, with 56% preferring the Social Security approach.” This, of course, has the same contours as the partisan breaks we find today in reference to new healthcare legislation.
Gallup repeated this question several more times. At least a plurality always preferred the Medicare option. The margins did decrease, at one point down to 44% favoring the Medicare option, 40% the private insurance option.
In 1964, 61% of Americans approved when asked the following question: "Congress has been considering a compulsory medical insurance program covering hospital and nursing home care for the elderly. This Medicare program would be financed out of increased Social Security taxes. In general, do you approve or disapprove of this program?" Another poll conducted that year found 57% approving of the concept. Medicare became law less than a year later.
Bottom line: Although support for Medicare fluctuated, it appears to have engendered at least a plurality margin of approval in contemporaneous Gallup polls. Most current polls measuring new healthcare legislation find at least a plurality opposed.