WASHINGTON - As President Barack Obama weighs sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that Americans are concerned about the progress of the conflict there.
Nearly six in 10 say they’re less confident the war will come to a successful conclusion, and a narrow majority of respondents (51 percent) oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan.
However, a majority of Americans (55 percent) also oppose an immediate and orderly withdrawal from that war zone, and the public is split over whether the conflict there has been worth the costs and casualties.
“We are witnessing a divided country, but one that is less optimistic,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart.
The poll of 1,005 adults was conducted Sept. 17-20, and has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points. It comes after the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Stanley A. McChrystal, wrote a confidential report arguing that the war will result in failure unless more troops are sent there.
Yet it also comes as news reports suggest that the Obama administration has begun considering whether to bolster counterterrorism efforts in neighboring Pakistan instead of launching a large-scale counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan.
Strikingly, the poll shows that there’s a generational split over whether to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. While slightly more than half of Americans oppose an expansion of the war, 52 percent of those who are 50 years old or older support it.
By comparison, just 35 percent of those under the age of 50 back a troop increase there, while 62 percent oppose it.
Measuring Obama’s health blitz
The NBC/Journal survey also comes as Obama has launched a media blitz to sell his push to overhaul the nation’s health care system, delivering a prime-time speech to Congress, holding rallies in Minnesota and Maryland, appearing on five Sunday-morning news programs and even sitting down with talk-show host David Letterman.
According to the poll, the president’s health care numbers have slightly increased since this blitz, although that increase remains within the margin of error. Thirty-nine percent believe Obama’s health care plan is a good idea, which is up three points since August. Forty-one percent say it’s a bad idea.
In addition, 45 percent approve of Obama’s handling of health care, while 46 percent disapprove, which is up from his 41-47 score last month. By comparison, just 21 percent approve of the Republican Party’s handling of the issue.
McInturff, the GOP pollster, attributes the uptick in Obama’s health care numbers to more Democrats rallying around his reform plan. In August, 62 percent of Democrats thought Obama’s plan was a good idea; now 69 percent believe that.
“I think this data is, on balance, better for the president than the August data,” McInturff said. But he added, “I think the change is relatively modest.”
Also in the poll, Americans are divided over whether reform will benefit the health system: 45 percent believe it would be better to pass Obama’s plan in order to make changes to the system, versus 39 percent who prefer keeping the status quo.
And 48 percent say they’re more concerned that reform will go too far and make the system worse, compared with 44 percent who are more concerned that reform won’t do enough to cut costs and lower the uninsured.
Despite the president’s health care blitz, the poll shows that a majority of Americans don’t think Obama is overexposed. Thirty-four percent say they see and hear Obama too much, 9 percent say they see and hear him too little, and 54 percent say it's the right amount.
But there is a partisan divide: 63 percent of those who voted for Republican John McCain last year say they're seeing too much of the president, versus only 8 percent of Obama voters who say that. Among independents, 52 percent believe Obama's exposure is the right amount, versus 40 percent who believe it's too much.
Liking Obama — but not his policies
Overall, Obama’s job-approval rating is at 51 percent, which is unchanged from last month’s poll. And the public continues to like him more than his policies.
A combined 77 percent say they like the president personally, even if they don’t agree with his policies, and 56 percent have a positive view of him.
Yet just 45 percent are confident that Obama has the right goals and policies for the country, and only 40 percent are confident he has the right policies to improve the economy.
These percentages are virtually identical to his scores from this summer, which suggest that Obama’s poll numbers have stabilized. “It’s more steady as you go,” said Hart, the Democratic pollster.
But McInturff has a different take, seeing these numbers reflecting a “divided electorate” and “unrest about the status quo in Washington.”
Other key findings
Here are some other noteworthy findings in the NBC/Journal poll:
- Those believing that the economy will get better over the next 12 months has increased nine points since April, and the number saying they’re satisfied about the state of the economy has jumped 20 points since July.
- The Democratic Party receives a 41-39 percent positive/negative score, versus 28-43 percent for the Republican Party.
- That said, the GOP has gained ground on the generic congressional ballot, with 43 percent preferring a Democratic-controlled Congress and 40 percent wanting a Republican-controlled Congress. That’s the Democrats’ narrowest lead on this generic ballot test since 2004 — a year when Republicans picked up House seats.
- And the public sees the partisanship in Washington the fault of both parties, with 22 percent blaming Republicans, 15 percent singling out Democrats and 61 percent pointing the finger at both parties.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.