Barack Obama's push to revamp the nation's health care system is getting the cold shoulder from Southerners, according to a new poll by Winthrop University.
But the president, who picked up a trio of Southern states in winning the 2008 presidential election, remains well-liked in this region, with solid majorities saying he is warm and friendly, trustworthy and concerned about people like those polled in South Carolina and 10 other Southern states.
Obama's signature domestic policy effort - reforming the nation's health care system - is running into a head wind from Southerners who said they are satisfied with the cost and quality of their health insurance and unhappy with the way the president is handling the issue.
"I'm not saying that we don't need an overall reform, but I think it's kind of extreme what they're trying to shove down our throats," said J. Chester Gambrell, a salesman who lives in Florence and participated in the poll. "I don't want a socialistic view of health care like Canada's got, like England's got."
The Winthrop poll, conducted in late October and early November, showed the president faces a challenge in persuading Southerners that broad health care reform is a necessity.
More than 77 percent of those polled said they are satisfied or very satisfied with the quality of the health care they receive. Just under 53 percent said they are satisfied or very satisfied with the cost of health care.
Health care comes in a distant second to the economy when Southerners were asked to name the most important problem facing the country today.
Just over 39 percent of Southerners said the economy was the top concern. About 13 percent said health care was the top problem.
But even though Southerners said that health care is not their top concern and that they are satisfied with the cost and quality of the coverage they have, the poll seemed to offer the president some opportunities.
A slim majority of Southerners - 51 percent - said they disapprove of the way Obama is handling health care policy.
"I'm pleased with only 51, 52 percent," said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a Columbia Democrat.
Clyburn said Southerners have a long-standing cultural aversion to government intervention.
"There's a tremendous distrust the South has of government," he said. "Always has been. It dates back to the war between the states."
In time, he said Southerners and other Americans will see that health care reform will be as good for them as the implementation of Social Security.
The Winthrop poll showed the president's overall job approval rating among Southerners stood at 47.4 percent, with 42.2 percent saying they disapprove of his performance.
More than 84 percent said Obama is a good communicator, and 76 percent said he is warm and friendly. A majority - 54.4 percent - said he is trustworthy.
And 61.5 percent - including 51.3 percent of white male Southerners - said Obama "cares about people like me."
Adolphus Belk, an assistant professor of political science at Winthrop, said those results stand in contrast with early criticisms of Obama for being what some described as cold and aloof.
"It might mean that you're in a position to make an argument," Belk said.
Republican officials said Obama's argument on health care has been heard by Southerners - and rejected.
Karen Floyd, chairwoman of the S.C. Republican Party, said she is not surprised Southerners seem to like Obama as a person and as a communicator.
"Everyone acknowledges that he's a gifted communicator," Floyd said. "Republican voters are sophisticated. They can determine that they appreciate the method of communication but not the message."
Floyd's Democratic Party counterpart, Carol Fowler, said Southern views on health care have more to do with who is discussing it in this region than with the details of what has been proposed in Washington.
"You have to remember who people are listening to," Fowler said. "Barack Obama is not here talking to us now. But Republican members of Congress are certainly here, and they have opposed what he's trying to do from the start."
Clyburn, whose job as majority whip in the House made him responsible for marshaling the votes to pass a version of health care reform over the weekend, said his party made a strategic error in focusing so much on improving options for those with no health insurance.
His party should have done more to point out the benefits reform would bring to the majority of Americans who have health care.
"The best thing we can do during this recession is to fix (health care)," he said.
Gambrell, who underwent a successful heart surgery three years ago and made arrangements with the hospital to pay off his portion of the bill in installments, said he thinks there is room for reform.
For example, he said he could support changes that would allow workers like lawn-care employees to join groups to purchase health insurance at competitive rates.
But he said he is concerned that what is emerging in Washington is too big, too complicated. "We don't understand the whole scope of the bill," Gambrell said.
Floyd released a statement Tuesday that took aim at the support Clyburn and his fellow South Carolina Democrat in the House, U.S. Rep. John Spratt, gave to the health care bill approved over the weekend.
"This bill is a tragedy for our nation," Floyd's statement read.
Floyd alluded to the weak Southern support for Obama's handling of health care outlined in the Winthrop poll results.
"For whatever reason, Washington's Democratic insiders like Spratt and Clyburn are not getting the message, and are instead carrying the water of the president's far-left agenda," she said.
Staff Writer Gina Smith contributed. Reach senior writer Wayne Washington at (803) 771-8385.