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WASHINGTON — After a fairly smooth opening, President Barack Obama faces new concerns among the American public about the budget deficit and government intervention in the economy as he works to enact ambitious health and energy legislation, a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds.

These rising doubts threaten to overshadow the president’s personal popularity and his agenda, in what may be a new phase of the Obama presidency.

“The public is really moving from evaluating him as a charismatic and charming leader to his specific handling of the challenges facing the country,” says Peter D. Hart, a Democratic pollster who conducts the survey with Republican Bill McInturff. Going forward, he says, Mr. Obama and his allies “are going to have to navigate in pretty choppy waters.”

There’s good news for the administration, too, including tentative support for Mr. Obama’s health-care plan and approval of his nominee for the Supreme Court. The public seems more optimistic about the country’s economic future than it did a few weeks earlier, and Americans are still more likely to blame the last administration for the deficit.

But the poll suggests Mr. Obama faces challenges on multiple fronts, including growing concerns about government spending and the bailout of auto companies. A majority of people also disapprove of his decision to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Nearly seven in 10 survey respondents said they had concerns about federal interventions into the economy, including Mr. Obama’s decision to take an ownership stake in General Motors Corp., limits on executive compensation and the prospect of more government involvement in health care. The negative feeling toward the GM rescue was reflected elsewhere in the survey as well.

A solid majority — 58% — said that the president and Congress should focus on keeping the budget deficit down, even if takes longer for the economy to recover.

Laura Zamora, 40, of Orange, Calif., voted for Mr. Obama but says she is frustrated by the economy and finds her support for the president waning. She says she’s facing a possible layoff as a local government worker in California.

“He’s bailing out the private sector. He’s putting all kinds of money into the private sector,” says Mrs. Zamora. “The money should be going to social programs, not to bailing out banks and GM. It should go to people who are unemployed.”

The survey of 1,008 adults, conducted Friday to Monday, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the full sample.

The results come after weeks of Republican hammering of Mr. Obama for spending too much and taking on too many issues, arguments that appear to be resonating with some voters.

Mr. Obama’s overall job approval and personal ratings have slipped, particularly among independent voters. His job approval rating now stands at 56%, down from 61% in April. Among independents, it dropped from nearly two-to-one approval to closely divided.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, President Obama acknowledged the toll.

“If you have an argument made frequently enough — whether it’s true or not — it has some impact,” he said Tuesday. “If you want to attack a Democratic president, how are you going to attack him? Well, you’re going to talk about how he wants more government and he wants to socialize medicine and he’s going to be oppressive towards business. I mean, that’s pretty standard fare.”

Mr. Obama ran down some of problems he said he had been forced to deal with, and said the real argument is about whether to take on health care and energy.

“I suppose we could just stand pat and not do anything on either of those fronts…That’s been tried for four or five decades. And in both energy and health care, the problems have gotten worse, not better,” he said.

By some measures, the public seems to agree. Only 37% of people said that Mr. Obama is taking on too many issues. A solid majority — 60% — said that he is focused on many issues because the country is facing so many problems.

The president and his advisers appear to be aware of the peril they face over the deficit. That helps explain why Mr. Obama has emphasized his effort to cut health-care costs over his effort to expand health-insurance coverage, and why he has promised that the cost of any health-care package will be covered by spending cuts or tax increases.

When asked what the most important economic issue facing the country is, 24% cited the deficit, vs. just 11% who named health care.

Mr. Obama has some breathing room. Nearly three in four respondents said that the president inherited the current economic conditions, versus just 14% who said he is responsible for them. Only 6% said the Obama administration is most responsible for the budget deficit. Nearly half blame the Bush administration.

On the economy, the poll had some bright spots, with a rising expectation of recovery. The portion of people who think the economy will improve over the next 12 months rose to 46% from 38% in April. And 20% predicted the recession would end in six months to a year, nearly double the comparable figure from April.

Still, overall, the public finds the economy in dreadful shape today, and people living in the Midwest were much less likely to express optimism about the future than those on the coasts.

On health care, the public remains open to persuasion. Without being told anything specific about the Obama plan in the survey, about a third of people said it’s a good idea, about a third said it’s a bad idea and the rest had no opinion. When given several details of his approach, 55% said they favored it, versus 35% who were opposed.

There was also support for the Democratic push to let people sign up for a public health-care plan that would compete with private companies, one of the toughest issues in the health-care debate. Three in four people said a public plan is extremely or quite important. But when told the arguments for and against the plan, a smaller portion, 47%, agreed with arguments in support of the plan, with 42% agreeing with the arguments against it.

At the same time, nearly half the participants said it was very or somewhat likely that their employer would drop private coverage if a public plan were available.

As for how to pay for the package, estimated at more than $1 trillion over 10 years, the public favors proposals to require all Americans to get insurance, to raise taxes on the rich and, to a lesser extent, to require all but the smallest businesses to offer insurance or pay into a fund.

But majorities oppose plans to tax health benefits, even if the taxes only apply to particularly generous plans. The public is divided about cuts to Medicare.

Regarding Mr. Obama’s pick to the Supreme Court, Judge Sonia Sotomayor, half the public said she’s qualified for the post, versus just 13% who said she’s not qualified. That’s equivalent to numbers in November 2005 for Samuel Alito, Mr. Bush’s nominee who was subsequently confirmed to the court.

One in three people said her decisions and views seem out of the mainstream, vs. 28% who say they are in the mainstream. The rest had no opinion. But overall support for her confirmation is strong.

There was some good news for General Motors, despite the widespread antipathy to using taxpayer money to aid the company. More than half the participants said they are considering or have recently considered buying an American car. Of those people, 40% said the recent problems of the U.S. auto industry make them more likely to buy American. Just 14% said it made them less likely.
—Jake Sherman contributed to this article.

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