As Congress prepares for a crucial and possibly decisive vote on the fate of President Barack Obama’s health care plan, the American public is evenly divided about whether the legislation should be passed or rejected, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Americans are also split on which would be worse for their congressional representative’s re-election chances — a vote for the overhaul bill or a vote against it.
And they’re divided on Obama’s overall job performance, as well as —for the first time in six years — whether the Democratic Party or the Republican Party better handles the economy.
But they overwhelmingly agree on this: The nation is on the wrong track, the economy has negatively affected the country, and Congress is broken.
"The memo is pretty simple — ‘Americans to Congress: You stink,’" says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
"The public is disgusted and unhappy," Hart adds. "To me, this is an exceptionally important story."
Weighing the health care vote
On health care, 46 percent say it would be better to pass the president’s plan and make changes to the nation’s health care system, versus 45 percent who would prefer not to pass it and keep the system as it is now.
Thirty-six percent believe Obama’s plan is a good idea, versus 48 percent who think it’s a bad idea. That’s a slight (but statistically insignificant) change from January, when 31 percent said it was a good idea and 46 percent said it was a bad one.
The poll also shows that Americans are divided over how their congressman or congresswoman should vote on the health care bill, which is expected to reach the House floor on Friday or Saturday of this week.
If their representative votes with Republicans to defeat the bill, 34 percent say they would be less likely to re-elect that member, 31 percent say they would be more likely to vote for the member, and 34 percent say it makes no difference.
But if their member of Congress votes with Democrats to pass the legislation, 36 percent say they would be less likely to re-elect that member, 28 percent say they would be more likely to vote for the member, and 34 percent say it makes no difference.
Translation: "There is no easy place right now in the health care debate," says McInturff, the GOP pollster.
Democratic respondents are overwhelmingly supportive of Obama’s health care plan -- they think it’s a good idea by a 64-16 percent margin, according to the poll. Hart argues that such strong support from the base will ultimately make a "yes" vote an easier sell for Democrats who are on the fence.
The key concern for these lawmakers isn’t losing some voters in the middle, he says. "It is alienating the base."
"From my point of view, it might look like a difficult vote," Hart says. "But they don’t have a choice. The repercussions they will suffer will be huge."
But McInturff contends that — because the poll shows majorities of independents, seniors and whites are wary of the overhaul plan — the right vote for Democrats isn’t all that clear.
"That’s why it becomes such a difficult judgment for them."
Down on Congress, the nation’s direction But if Americans are divided over the health care legislation, the same isn’t true about their views on Congress.
Only 17 percent approve of how lawmakers on Capitol Hill are doing their jobs. Given the choice, half of respondents say they would vote to defeat every single member of Congress, including their own representative.
And, asked which one or two phrases best described their feelings about Congress, the top four responses were all negative: only interested in staying in office (37 percent), too close to special interest groups (28 percent), too partisan (19 percent) and supporting pork projects and waste (16 percent).
The bottom four responses were positive: getting things done (6 percent), looking out for the needs of average people (6 percent), care about the country (5 percent) and hard working (4 percent).
The public also is sour on the nation’s direction. Nearly six in 10 believe the county is off on the wrong track, compared with 33 percent who think it’s headed in the right direction.
And a combined 88 percent say they’ve been personally affected by the downturn in the economy "a great deal," "quite a bit" or "just some."
Obama at 400 days As for President Obama’s performance at 400-plus days in office, 48 percent approve of how he’s doing his job, while 47 percent disapprove.
Back in January’s NBC/Journal poll, his job rating was 50-44 percent.
Obama enjoys higher scores on his handling of Afghanistan (53 percent) and Iraq (53 percent), and lower scores on the economy (47 percent) and health care (41 percent).
By comparison, congressional Republicans’ approval rating on health care is 35 percent.
On the personal side, 50 percent say they have a positive view of the president, compared with 38 percent who have a negative view.
On the midterms, the issues
Looking ahead to the midterm elections in November, the poll shows Democrats with a three-point edge on the generic ballot: 45 percent say they prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress, while 42 percent want a GOP-controlled one.
But Democrats continue to face an enthusiasm gap. High-interest voters say they prefer a GOP-controlled Congress by 13 points, 52-39 percent.
Also in the poll, both the Democratic Party (37-43 percent) and Republican Party (31-43 percent) maintain net-negative favorable/unfavorable ratings.
Yet in perhaps the most striking findings in the survey, Republicans have made up considerable ground on the issues. Asked which party better handles health care, Democrats enjoy a nine-point advantage over Republicans (37-28 percent). That’s down from the 31-point edge they held in July 2008.
The parties are tied on the economy (31-31 percent), after Democrats led on this question since 2004. And Republicans lead on reducing the federal deficit (by six points), on taxes (11 points) and dealing with the war on terrorism (14 points).
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll was conducted of 1,000 adults (104 reached by cell phone) from March 11, 13-14. It has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.