WASHINGTON — The fever has broken. The patient is out of intensive care. But if you're President Barack Obama, you can't stop pacing the waiting room. Health care overhaul is still in guarded condition.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll has found that opposition to Obama's health care remake dropped dramatically in just a matter of weeks. Still, Americans remain divided over complex legislation that Democrats are advancing in Congress.
The public is split 40-40 on supporting or opposing the health care legislation, the poll found. An even split is welcome news for Democrats, a sharp improvement from September, when 49 percent of Americans said they opposed the congressional proposals and just 34 percent supported them.
Anger about health care boiled over during August. Lawmakers returning home for town hall meetings faced outcries that the government was trying to take over the system, ushering in higher costs, lower quality — even rationing and euthanasia.
"It's very significant that there's an upturn in support for the plans because after August there was a sense that the whole effort was beginning to decline and would not come back in terms of public support," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor who tracks public opinion on health care.
"Even with this," added Blendon, "the country is still divided over whether or not moving ahead is the right thing to do."
Behind the shift seems to be a growing determination among Democrats that going forward would be better. Meanwhile, political independents don't appear as alarmed about the congressional proposals as they were just a few weeks ago. Still, opponents remain more passionate in their convictions than do supporters.
In a significant change, opposition among older Americans dropped 16 percentage points. Seniors have been concerned that Congress would stick them with the bill by cutting Medicare to pay for covering the uninsured. Among the most reliable voters, they were much more wary of the changes than the public as a whole. The gap has narrowed.
The poll found that 68 percent of Democrats support the congressional plans, up from 57 percent in early September. Opposition among independents plunged from 51 percent to 36 percent. However, only 29 percent of independents currently support the plans in Congress.
Among seniors, opposition fell from 59 percent in September to 43 percent now. Almost four in 10, 38 percent, now support it, compared with 31 percent in September.
Retiree Sandi Murray, 65, of Hesperia, Mich., said she doesn't have any concerns her Medicare coverage will suffer. "I think it will be A-OK," she said.
Murray said she thinks it's time to address the problems of nearly 50 million people without coverage. "We need to do something so that everybody has some amount of coverage for some reasonable amount of money," she said.
Republicans remain solidly against the congressional health care plans, with four out of five opposed.
Americans overwhelmingly say it's important that health care legislation have the support of both parties.
Blendon credits Obama's speech to Congress in early September and his blitz of media interviews and appearances since then for moving public opinion toward the positive column. What some have criticized as presidential hyperactivity, many Americans took as a sign that the president was taking ownership of the issue, Blendon said.
Before his prime-time speech to Congress, 52 percent disapproved of Obama's handling of health care. Now the public is split, with 48 percent approving and 47 percent disapproving.
"Getting more directly involved in the outcome is what people expect a president to be doing," said Blendon.
There's still deep skepticism that the government can fix the health care system to expand coverage and tamp down rising costs.
Andrew Newcomb, 28, who works in sales and lives near Destin, Fla., said he doesn't think taxpayers should have to take on the costs of covering the uninsured.
"I don't want my tax money to pay for some pill-popper to fake some injury and go to the hospital when I don't ever go to the hospital," said Newcomb, adding he can afford to go to the doctor and pay $60 for a checkup.
The congressional bills would require all Americans to get health insurance, either through an employer, through a government program or on their own. Tax credits would be offered for many of those who buy their own coverage but failure to comply could result in a fine.
"I don't think that the government should supply health care to the people," said Newcomb.
The AP-GfK poll was conducted Oct. 1-5, based on a nationally representative sample of 1,003 adults age 18 or older, contacted by telephone on land lines and cell phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for results based on the entire sample.