President Obama's once-robust support in Minnesota has dwindled sharply as he confronts a sluggish economy and significant unease about a health care overhaul that has split Democrats and Republicans in Congress, according to the latest Star Tribune Minnesota Poll.
At 51 percent, Obama's overall approval rating in Minnesota has shrunk 11 points since April, with close to half -- 45 percent -- expressing disapproval of his handling of health care policy, his signature domestic priority.
Just 39 percent said they approve of the president's handling of health care, while 16 percent were undecided.
At the same time, a slim majority support Obama's calls for a new government health insurance plan and a law requiring all Americans to have health insurance. The telephone poll, conducted last week, found Minnesotans split 51 percent to 37 percent in favor of the so-called public option, the most controversial part of Obama's reform plan. The 1,000 randomly selected Minnesotans in the poll split by a similar margin in favor of mandatory insurance, 54 percent to 37 percent.
"If you're talking about reforming health care, you have to have health care for everybody," Carol Lammers, a 44-year-old communications consultant in Rochester, said in a follow-up interview. "Otherwise we're not reforming -- we're just tweaking what we have."
But as Obama enters a critical phase in the congressional debate, he also faces Republican skeptics like Robert Jackson, a 75-year-old 3M retiree in Eden Prairie, who ardently opposes any expansion of government's role in health care beyond existing entitlement programs such as Medicare, in which he's enrolled.
"Universal health care doesn't work wherever it's used," Jackson said. "They say, well, Sweden takes care of everybody. Yeah, and their tax rate is something like 60 percent or something like that."
The Minnesota Poll numbers suggest that intense campaigns both for and against Obama's health care agenda have left a significant number of people unsure about what elements a final reform package should include. Lammers, a political independent who voted for Obama, said she remains "unclear" how mandatory insurance would work.
"How can you require me to get something I can't afford?" she said. "How are you going to enforce it?"
While 43 percent of the poll respondents said they generally support the health care changes being developed by Congress and the Obama administration, only 18 percent described their support as strong. On the other side, 40 percent said they oppose the changes, but with just 27 percent describing their views as strong. Some 17 percent remain undecided.
For some respondents, that uncertainty translates into anxiety. "I agree with helping people who can't afford it," said Dorothy Derrig, a 79-year-old widow living in Blaine on Social Security and Medicare. "But I'm just scared that Obama is going to mess it up for everybody, and you won't be able to get a doctor or get examined like you should."
Some of the younger respondents said they were inspired by Obama's historic election and are more willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, even on the mandatory insurance requirement that would hit young people hardest. "I understand the criticism of Big Brother," said Henry Narigon, a 24-year-old St. Paul resident who does ecological restoration. "I also understand the cost issue. But at the same time, we have to look at the health issue. I'm for health care for everyone. I put my trust in government on this one."
Bare majority still holds
Obama's drop in the Minnesota Poll comes after a summer marked by withering Republican attacks on his health care agenda and a series of nationwide town hall meetings that were initially dominated by tax protesters and conservative critics of big government.
He also has been dogged by a creaking economic recovery that has yet to produce a bounce in jobs, one of the central promises of his $787 billion stimulus package. While Obama supporters such as Lammers say "the jobs will be coming," others are less optimistic.
"What, they've spent about 10 percent of it? It hasn't done very much," said Lyle Knosalla, a 61-year-old former machinist who retired early and pays for his own private insurance. "There aren't many jobs out there."
Obama's 11-point fall from a commanding 62 percent overall approval rating in last April's Minnesota Poll is more pronounced than his falling national approval rating in a New York Times/CBS News poll released Friday, which had him at 56 percent -- five points above his approval rating in the latest Minnesota Poll.
The new Minnesota Poll found that Obama's drop in the state is led by declining support among independents, men, middle- and lower-income workers, outstate residents, and people who have not attended college. Most significantly, the poll found a 17-point decline among 18- to 34-year-olds, one of his best demographics in the election.
But with the health care debate certain to dominate the headlines this fall, Obama still holds the approval of a bare majority of Minnesotans, a number that members of the state's congressional delegation are likely to bear in mind.
Obama will also get a push from enthusiastic supporters such as 66-year-old Elizabeth Smith, a retired union house painter who attended his health care rally at the Target Center this month. As a Medicare beneficiary, Smith is among the 89 percent of poll respondents who said they are covered by health insurance.
But she worries about the others. "We're spending way too much money, and too many people are not covered," said Smith, the mother of four. "I think, what a shame. We should all have something like Medicare. It's not perfect, but we can work on it."
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753