The Honeymoon Is Not Over

Obama’s challenge: get the public to like his policies as much as it likes him.

Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
Barack Obama

A good test of whether a marriage is still in the honeymoon phase is how accepting one spouse is of the other’s irritating qualities. When a husband interrupts a wife in front of others and she thinks nothing of it, they’re still honeymooners. When the same behavior initiates a kick under the table, the honeymoon is over, or at least imperiled. Fork in the thigh, forget it.

The public’s honeymoon with President Obama continues, despite a recent set of polls that show some warning signs. People don’t approve of his handling of the economy as much they once did, and a majority worry he doesn’t have a plan to tackle the deficit. They don’t like his bailouts of the car companies at all. Despite these findings, he remains personally popular, and his approval rating is pretty steady and better than it was for the last two presidents at this stage in their tenure. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, his favorable/unfavorable numbers are 60 percent to 29 percent, and three-quarters like him, including 27 percent who don’t agree with his policies.

This is not new. Polls have shown this split between Obama’s popularity and his policies for months. They’ve also shown Obama’s weakness in these policy areas. Since March, a variety of polls show that Obama has underpolled his popularity on the question of the deficit or his budget plans by roughly 15 points. In the April Gallup poll, 44 percent disapproved of his handling of the deficit, an almost statistically insignificant difference from the 48 percent who disapprove of his handling today.

What these numbers do help us figure out, though, is how well Obama can persuade on tough issues. He’s known as a great communicator. His speeches may be powerful enough to settle colicky babies. The president and his aides also know how to narrow-cast their messages—using everything from town halls to TheLate Show to the network news to make sure different audiences get the message.

Now, however, Obama is entering a rocky part of his schedule. For weeks, the president has been slowly transitioning from the first phase of his presidency, in which he was reacting to the problems he inherited, to the second, in which he’s pushing the programs he campaigned on. He does not have the same power of emergency, and his opponents have a better sense of his weak spots. This makes the act of persuasion harder.

Yet there are many areas in which Obama has been persuasive. Despite considerable criticism from Republicans and conservatives like Dick Cheney over his anti-terrorism policies and his foreign policy, a recent CBS/New York Times poll showed that the president’s handling of foreign policy finds favor with 59 percent of Americans. Some 57 percent favor his handling of terrorism issues. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor seems to be in a better position with the country than nominee Samuel Alito was at the same time (though this has a lot to do with Sotomayor’s own qualifications, of course, and not just the president’s powers to persuade).

Other issues are harder for the president. A majority of people disapprove of the president’s decision to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay. People also don’t like his plans for rescuing Chrysler and GM. Almost seven in 10 have serious reservations about the government’s ownership of GM, according to the NBC/WSJ poll.

Maybe Obama hasn’t made a concerted effort to sell his policies on GM and Gitmo. There are two issues, however, that he has—and the results are not encouraging.

Since the start of his presidency, Obama and his aides have been trying to address people’s fears about the deficit. He’s held numerous events highlighting his deficit-reduction plans, including one last week promoting stronger fiscal safeguards. He’s also made deficit reduction the central theme of his health care reform pitch. People don’t appear to have heard. In the CBS/New York Times poll, 60 percent said they didn’t think the president has a plan for addressing the deficit. It’s not that they don’t like his plan—they don’t even think he has one.

The president has also tried to convince people that his stimulus bill has been working. The message hasn’t gotten through, either. His claim that 150,000 jobs have been saved or created has been panned by the press, factcheck.org, and analysts, and the public doesn’t seem to be buying it, either. In the CBS poll, 63 percent say Obama’s policies have either had no impact on the economy or made it worse.

In terms of voters (as opposed to issues), the biggest general problem for Obama in the numbers comes among the independents. After the 2008 election, they are now at their highest level in the electorate in 70 years, and they are moving away from him. In the NBC/WSJ survey, 46 percent of independents approve of Obama’s handling of his job, which is down from 60 percent in April. In the CBS/New York Times poll, 65 percent thought Obama lacked a plan for the deficit.

What do these findings suggest for the president’s ability to sell his health care reform package? It’s a big and complicated issue with a lot of entry points for demagoguery. (Rationing! Socialized medicine! Budget buster!) If Republicans frame the debate around its cost, they might be able to exploit people’s hard-to-change views about the deficit. That’s why administration officials insist that the health care plan will not increase the deficit and why members of Congress working on the plan have delayed its release until they can find a way to make the program deficit-neutral.

The president has the wind at his back. Sixty-one percent want some kind of change in health care, and only 35 percent don’t, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation poll. A recent Pew poll shows 75 percent want to change the system to cover everyone. Some elements of reform are even more popular, like a public option, which 65 percent favor. Other proposals are not popular. Sixty-five percent oppose taxing employer health benefits, an idea under serious consideration because it helps offset new spending.

Perhaps the most interesting element of the Kaiser poll is that persuasion matters. Of the 28 percent who oppose requiring employers to pay for health insurance, three-quarters are open to changing their minds if they are convinced it would be fairer. Tell the nearly 70 percent who favor such a mandate that it’ll cause job losses, and 65 percent of them will flip. This seems to echo a similar volatility in the findings of former Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg, who writes in the New Republic that the country is divided evenly on whether the greater risk is an unchanged status quo or government reforms that “create new problems.”

On health care, then—as on so many other issues—the lines of debate are familiar: The opposition will claim that the president’s plan will create new problems. The president will try to convince the country that the status quo is unacceptable. The winner will be the side that the public decides not to kick in the shins.