Slow Down, Mr. President

A look behind Obama’s declining poll numbers.

President Barack Obama

We’re behind you, Barack, but slow down. That was the message from a dozen independent voters who chatted with veteran pollster Peter Hart Wednesday night.

Hart, who regularly conducts these focus groups for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, had expected a harsher assessment. He’d just finished working on the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in which President Obama’s approval rating is at 53 percent. The Pew poll and New York Times/CBS poll have shown similar drops. When people are asked about the president’s performance on the issue of the day—health care—their assessments are even grimmer. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 42 percent now say that the president’s plan is a bad idea, which is a 10-point increase since last month.

I sat on the other side of one-way glass with a group of other reporters while Hart started his work, a mixture of cajoling and entertaining the participants for their real views. It started out darkly for Obama. Asked to rate the current state of things between zero (miserable) and 10 (great), two picked 5, and everyone else went lower. Asked to give a word or phrase describing how they felt about the country, they said: struggling, stagnant, disgruntled, nothing’s changed, dismal, worried, hell in a handbasket, drained.

Hart pointed to an easel with a series of arrows on it. Some pointed straight up. Some pointed slightly up. Another zigzagged. He asked the group to pick which one represented where the country would be in two years. Almost everyone picked the zigzag. Lou Moriconi, a 63-year-old graphic designer, picked an arrow pointing straight down, the harshest assessment. But when asked what he would tell the president if he met him, he said: “Keep up the good work—we’re still behind you.” Lou was one of the seven in the group who voted for Obama (or “Barack,” as six of his supporters referred to him), but even the four McCain voters and one Nader supporter had not given up on the president. “Stay strong,” said Ray, a movie theater manager, when asked what he would tell Obama.

Each could remember what they felt the night Obama was elected. Their recollections were vivid. One woman who voted for McCain, Jennifer Pennington, nevertheless remembers crying at the sense of possibility. “I pledged all my hopes for him.” This kind of intense emotion could lead to a sense of dashed expectations, but instead it appears to have created, at least in this small sample, a personal connection that makes them patient and ready to follow. When Scott Wood, an unemployed network administrator was asked what he would tell Obama he said, “Don’t give up. We haven’t.”

“We’ve found out he’s not Superman,” said Obama voter Nora Seeley, 54, a dental hygienist, when asked what she had learned about him in the last six months. “He’s on a fast train,” said Seeley. “Things aren’t being considered.” Nearly everyone echoed this sentiment. “Slow down,” said Alex Chambers, a 27-year-old teacher, when asked to give the president advice. “The speed that he’s doing things—it’s a little bit of a gamble,” said Tim Polen, a 24-year-old student. Many worried that by moving too quickly—particularly on health care—Obama was going to make the situation worse.

There were lots of concerns expressed on everything from the growth of spending to the Wall Street bailouts. But speed was the big issue. “People just need to breathe,” said Hart. “It’s like trying to shove a meal down in a minute. These people are saying, ‘Slow down, Mr. President.’ ” This echoed something I’d heard earlier in the day from House Minority Leader John Boehner. Talking about the Blue Dog Democrats, who were slowing the pace of health care legislation in the House, Boehner said: “It’s not surprising these members would have to stand up and say ‘stop.’ That’s what most Americans are saying.”

If the members of the focus group wanted Obama to slow down, that doesn’t mean they want to see less of him. Repeatedly, they said they liked hearing from the president and approved of the way he explained things. When asked to say what helped shape their views about Obama—they were given a list of 15 factors, such as giving the military the go-ahead to shoot the Somali pirates, his family life, and his proposed overhaul of health care—seven of the 12 picked “press conferences and town-hall sessions around the country.” It was the most popular factor.

But just because they like to hear from Obama doesn’t mean they like everything he says. They were irritated when the president inserted himself in the arrest of Henry Louis Gates. It wasn’t because Obama seemed to pick a side but because he shot his mouth off and meddled (though everyone seemed to like that Obama tried to improve his remarks later). If there was a more general warning sign in this, it was that later in the session a few in the group—all of them Obama voters—talked about the president’s lack of humility.

Hart tries in these focus groups to get at political attitudes indirectly. At one point, he asked the group to describe what Obama’s spine is made of. The answers ranged from steel to sand. Marsha Welder, 59, an account manager at a security firm, said “wet cement,” because “it’s going to dry.” It was fitting description for an evening when everyone seemed to be practicing, and preaching, patience.