This article was co-authored by Bill McInturff and Alex Bratty.

As the debate over health care heats up and President Obama starts to sell his plan in earnest to the American people, he’s facing a pretty significant perception gap between what the public believe he’s focused on and what they think he should be focused on.

In our latest NBC/WSJ poll,* 69% of the public believe President Obama’s health care plan is focused on addressing people who are not covered by insurance while just 12% believe it addresses the cost of health care.

Those perceptions are in stark contrast to the 42% who say the president and Congress should be focused on the uninsured and the almost equivalent proportion (39%) who say they should be focused on the cost of health care.

As you might expect partisan persuasion plays a key role in attitudes on this issue.  Republicans favor cost (53%) over the uninsured (26%) while a majority of Independents would prioritize the uninsured (52%) over cost (31%).  Interestingly though, Democrats are a little more divided with 47% leaning towards the uninsured, 33% in favor of dealing with cost, and 18% volunteering the response that the president and Congress should be dealing with both.  Of particular note is that White Obama voters track closely with the overall public (37% cost / 42% uninsured).

The president has just begun to lay out his health care plan, and with 34% of Americans saying they don’t know enough about it to have an opinion, the data would suggest the public has yet to truly engage on the issue.  But, there is no doubt this is a large and potentially troublesome perception gap for the Obama Administration to start with as it heads down the bumpy road of tackling health care reform.

(This analysis is based on a bipartisan survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies together with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for NBC/WSJ.  Neither Peter D. Hart Research Associates nor NBC/WSJ are responsible for these conclusions.)

*National survey of 1,005 adults conducted April 23-26, 2009.

Public Opinion Strategies