WASHINGTON -- Opposition to President Barack Obama's health care law jumped after he signed it -- a clear indication his victory could become a liability for Democrats in this fall's elections.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll finds Americans oppose the health care remake 50 percent to 39 percent. Before a divided Congress finally passed the bill and Obama signed it at a jubilant White House ceremony last month, public opinion was about evenly split. Another 10 percent of Americans say they are neutral.
Disapproval for Obama's handling of health care also increased from 46 percent in early March before he signed the bill, to 52 percent currently -- a level not seen since last summer's angry town hall meetings.
Nonetheless, the bleak numbers may not represent a final judgment for the president and his Democratic allies in Congress.
Only 28 percent of those polled said they understand the overhaul extremely or very well. And a big chunk of those who don't understand it remain neutral. Democrats hope to change public opinion by calling attention to benefits available this year for seniors, families with children transitioning to work and people shut out of coverage because of a medical problem.
"There are some things I like, because I think that there are some people who need health care," said Jim Fall, 73, a retired computer consultant from Wrightwood, Calif.
But "I don't like the idea of the government dictating what health care should be like," added Fall. "Nor do I like them taking money out of Medicare. They are going to create more waste and they are going to take away benefits."
Seniors -- reliable voters in midterm congressional races -- were more likely to oppose the law. Forty-nine percent strongly opposed it, compared with 37 percent of those 64 and younger. Seniors' worries that Medicare cuts to insurers, hospitals and other providers will undermine their care represent a formidable challenge for Democratic congressional candidates this fall.
Analysts said the level of public wariness on such a major piece of social legislation is unusual.
"The surprise of this poll is that you would expect people to be more supportive of the bill now that it's the law of the land -- and that's not the case," said Robert Blendon, a Harvard public health professor who follows opinion trends on health care. "The election for the House is going to be competitive, and health care is clearly going to be an issue."
The nearly $1 trillion, 10-year health care remake would provide coverage to nearly all Americans while also attempting to improve quality and slow the ruinous pace of rising medical costs.
Nonpartisan congressional budget analysts say the law is fully paid for. Its mix of Medicare cuts and tax increases, falling mainly on upper-income earners, would actually reduce the federal deficit. And people covered by large employers may even see a dip in their premiums.
The public doesn't seem to be buying it.
Fifty-seven percent said they expect to pay more for their own health care, contrasted with 7 percent who expect to pay less. And 47 percent said they expect their own medical care to get worse, compared with 14 percent looking forward to an improvement.
"Based on the little information we know, somebody's going to have to pay for it, so it makes sense that taxes would go up," said Lang Fu, 48, an oil and gas engineer from Houston.
Politically, Americans are polarized. Democrats support the overhaul by 68 percent to 18 percent, while Republicans oppose it 85 percent to 9 percent. Independents are roughly even, with 44 percent opposed and 40 percent in favor -- within the poll's margin of error. That suggests there's some space for Obama and the law's supporters to make an appeal in its favor.
Donna Christian of Kingsport, Tenn., is a political independent who says she's leaning in favor of the law. A bad heart forced Christian, 45, to leave her job as a supervisor at a wireless phone company a few years ago. She and her 10-year-old daughter make do on a limited income, and have coverage through Medicaid.
"I think Americans are going to be better off in the long run even if they don't see that now," Christian said. "More will have coverage, and they'll be able to go to the hospital when they need to."
Ron Pollack, head of Families USA, a liberal advocacy group that supports the overhaul, said it will be "a real task" to turn public opinion around, but he's confident it will happen.
"When you dig deeper, individual provisions of the law have enormous support," he said. Pollack believes current polls reflect public disgust with a "very lengthy and messy process."
But Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., says Democrats have already lost their chance to persuade the public.
"They have had 16 months to explain this bill," Camp said. "Good luck trying to explain it in the next six."
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted April 7-12, 2010, by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide on landline and cellular telephones. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.