Video: Should health care have gone on backburner?

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    vo: regimen. ta to your doctor,

    >>> the president is trying to build some momentum for this last big final push, so they say, to get health care reform passed. another road trip today. this time in st. louis. going to do another one next monday.

    >> that's right. the president's public push is happening while senior aides are privately pushing hard for votes and all signs are this one is going to come down to the wire. steve hildebrand was the deputy campaign manager for obama during his run for the white house . he joins us now. nice to have you with us.

    >> thank you.

    >> let's start with health care . i noticed bob herbert 's column in "the new york times" the other day, somebody who's been aally. he said, "millions upon millions of americans have lost or are losing their jobs, their homes, their small businesses and their hopes for a brighter future. instead of focusing with unwavering intensity on this increasingly tragic situation, making it their top domestic priority, president obama and the democrats have spent astonishing amounts of time and energy and most of their political capital on an obsessive quest to pass a health care bill." do you think it was a mistake to put so much energy into health care ? should they have just let this one slip away after massachusetts and focus on jobs?

    >> no, absolutely not. i don't even believe the massachusetts senate race had a lot to do with health care . it had a lot to do with bad politics by the democratic --

    >> but it affected health care , certainly.

    >> but -- it affected health care , you're right. but i don't think the race was lost because of the health care battle. i think that president obama is right to move forward on the health care piece, because millions of people need it. and he can do more than one thing at once and is proving that. you know, we're fighting two wars, there's a lot going on, big news with israel this morning. but also, you know, we are stabilized as a country with unemployment, with jobs, and we're moving in the right direction. all signs are there. so i -- i don't take away what bob herbert said, but i do think that this health care piece is vitally important.

    >> you wrote in "the huffington post ," i think it was two days ago, a pretty stinging critique of the democratic party as a whole, mostly because of congress and having to do the ethics thing. and you talked about this narrative and how everything that nancy pelosi said when coming into the speakership is now coming home to roost a little bit, to the democrats. is there -- is there something the white house could have done here? is this a democratic party problem that everybody needs all hands on deck?

    >> well, president obama deserves some credit for lobbying reform that he's pushed, some of the disclosure stuff. but i think the american people are filled with anger, in part because washington hasn't changed to the extent that they want it to change and they believe it needs to be changed. you know, we won a lot of democratic races in 2006 and 2008 , in part because we said we were going to be different than the republican culture of corruption . and it's important for us now to take serious, measurable steps with lobbying reform , with campaign finance reform , with ethics reform . you know, we still have a senate and a house that governs its own conduct. and it doesn't do a very good job of it.

    >> how damaging do you think, for example, the spectacle with eric massa right now, charlie rangel being able to hold on to his seat as long as he did --

    >> never mind david paterson .

    >> david paterson . how devastating is this for the democratic party ?

    >> it's a tremendous distraction that is not helpful and if democrats don't show that they've got the strength to clean this up, we're not going to look any different than the republicans did two years ago. and i think that's going to be a huge mistake for us.

    >> what should they do?

    >> i think they should come out with a significant reform agenda. and there's plenty of time to do it before the november elections. they said they were going to do this. so let's do it.

    >> but politics is about symbolism sometimes, and i think back to ronald reagan and the symbolism, when he came in and fired the air traffic controller . is there a symbolic thing that president obama should be doing or could be doing to sort of send this message that, no, this is a different democratic party , this is not the same thing that happened, because, clearly, when you keep saying they want change, they want change, well, a, what is that change, and b, is there a symbolic thing that he should be doing?

    >> i would hope that the president would go further than he's gone so far.

    >> what does that mean?

    >> to seriously lay out to congress a reform agenda, work with the democratic leadership to come out with one reform agenda that we can all agree upon and then move forward to enact it. this isn't just about health care reform . we got to -- the president said this over and over and over again. we have to first change the way washington works. and we haven't really changed the way washington works yet. we've got time to do it, we need to do it, it's vitally important to clean up this institution, because the american people have no trust in this place. and that's sad.

    >> what do you think the white house could be doing better to portray all of its efforts on behalf of americans trying to find jobs? and how can it show -- there's know question this is something they think about and work on all the time, but people have the perception he's doing over things, but health care is the main issue he's concerned about. anything he could be doing better?

    >> health care is definitely getting the lion's share of the press when we're not talking about ethics scandals and the jobs piece does not get the kind of attention -- it's not, you know, we pass a $15 billion jobs bill in the senate with 12 republican senators, but it kind of gets lost in the discussion. i do think that once we get through these votes and i do think health care will pass both houses and be signed by the president. we can move forward and have tremendous attention and focus on jobs. and i agree, he's got to get there.

    >> before i let you go, the democratic national committee , there's been some criticism from the outside on how they're preparing for 2010 . what say you?

    >> i say that, you know, elections are not just about preparing a campaign, but they're also preparing a message and an agenda and holding to what you campaigned on previously. and if the democrats don't get their act together to support a reform agenda and change washington , then voters are going to either stay home or they're going to say, we don't really see a difference between the two parties. so i think the dnc should be part of that, chuck.

    >> all right. steve hildebrand , former deputy campaign manager to the obama campaign . we appreciate your time today.

    >> thank you.

updated 3/10/2010 2:00:34 PM ET 2010-03-10T19:00:34

Americans have come to detest Congress ever more deeply as it nears the end of a nasty fight over health care. But more than half still back President Barack Obama, a bright spot for a Democratic Party counting on its leader to help stave off expected losses in elections this fall.

The latest Associated Press-GfK poll found that fewer people approve of Congress than at any point in Obama's presidency. Support has dropped significantly since January to a dismal 22 percent as the health care debate has roiled Capitol Hill. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are safe; half of all people say they want to fire their congressman.

Conversely, Obama's job-performance standing is holding fairly steady at 53 percent. And over the past two months, the Democrat has gained ground on national security issues, specifically the subsiding Iraq war and the escalating Afghanistan war, as he has spent most of his time — at least publicly — on domestic matters like the economy and health care. On those issues, he still has the support of about half the people.

"I agree with what Obama is trying to do, but nobody is listening to him," said Grace Pope of Waterville, Maine. But this 75-year-old Democrat added, "I don't think that the Congress is doing anything."

Such sentiments and the survey's results make clear that Obama remains far more popular than House and Senate members as he leads a Democratic Party facing a volatile election-year environment that, so far, seems to be trending in Republicans' favor. Judging by his standing at this point, Obama seems to be an asset for his rank and file.

But, given the fickleness of this electorate, the uncertainty of the health care debate and the stubbornly high unemployment rate, the president could just as quickly turn into a liability. His own clout will be on the line in the first midterm elections of his presidency. And the outcome is certain to shape the remainder of his first term, if not his likely re-election bid in 2012.

For now, it's unclear just how much Obama can do to prevent midterm election shellackings. Democrats lost recent statewide elections in Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia even though he campaigned for them. Presidents typically lose House and Senate seats in their first midterm elections. And the party in power usually bears the brunt of voters' ire when the country is in turmoil.

Thus, another of the poll's findings may not bode well for Obama and his Democrats: A clear majority of Americans — 56 percent — now say the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Democrat Benny Newman of Tulsa, Okla., laid the blame for the nation's ills on both Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress.

Video: Are Dems in need of a ‘tough liberal’? "Just bundle them in the same bag," said Newman, who at 79 just lost a job with a local public school district because of budget woes. "I don't think either one of them is interested in the general public. ... They're always stalling, playing politics, trying to jockey for a better position for their own re-election."

In recent weeks, Obama has increasingly blamed the ways of Washington for a lack of progress on his agenda — even though he's in the White House and his party is leading Congress. The disparity between his popularity and Congress' shows his pitch may just be working.

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Obama's overall standing hasn't really moved since January. Neither have his ratings on health care and the economy.

But his marks have jumped on Iraq and Afghanistan. More than half of people approve of how he's handling the wars, with 55 percent backing him on Iraq and 57 percent supporting him on Afghanistan. That's compared with 49 percent for each two months ago. The new poll was taken during weekend elections in Iraq, where a U.S. troop drawdown is under way, and in the midst of a buildup in Afghanistan, as the U.S. notches victories in rooting out suspected terrorists.

By comparison, Congress' approval rating has dropped 10 percentage points since January, perhaps an indication that people are blaming lawmakers more than the president for gridlock that has paralyzed Washington on a host of fronts.

It is quite unusual for voters to tear down their own member of Congress. People often dislike the institution of Congress but usually support their own representatives. But not this year. Half said they wanted to elect someone other than their current congressman; only 40 percent wanted to re-elect their lawmaker.

"I don't think anybody up there is doing a good job. ... We need to get rid of them all and institute term limits," said Republican John Campbell, 52, of Del Rio, Texas, a warden at a federal detention center. He castigated Washington as full of "cronies" and Congress as a "bunch of entitled prima donnas."

Video: Health insurance industry draws American ire "Washington," he said, "is broke."

As poor as the ratings are for Congress in general, people seem slightly more unhappy with Republicans than Democrats — another bit of potentially good news for Obama's party.

Just 30 percent approve of how Republicans in Congress are doing their jobs compared with 36 percent for Democrats.

Republicans still trail Democrats on the question of who should win control of Congress come November; 44 percent say Democrats, 38 percent say Republicans.

And the GOP has a slight disadvantage on two issues that voters deem among the most important — the economy and health care.

Still, Democrats are vulnerable, and perhaps nothing illustrates that vulnerability better than this: By 67 percent to 59 percent, more independents disapprove of Democrats in Congress than disapprove of Republicans. This matters because independents usually determine who wins elections. And they have been moving away from Democrats, after heavily supporting them in 2006 and 2008.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 3-8, 2010, by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,002 adults nationwide, and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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