Death of a Salesman

A slew of new polls suggest Obama is not a great pitchman for his policies.

President Obama

On Thursday, the president will travel to Holland, Mich., to tout investments created by the Recovery Act. Several other administration officials, including the vice president, will hit the road, too. These periodic jaunts are part of “Recovery Summer,” a months-long enterprise that, like the summer trips everyone else takes, will be punctuated by a single question: “Are we there yet?”

Economists may say, yes, the economy is recovering (maybe), but the country says no. Only 25 percent say the economy is improving, according to a recent CBS survey. That’s just one of the dark findings for the administration in a slew of recent polls that suggest that the administration’s summer tour will do little to improve the president’s political fortunes and those of his party.

Three polls that came out in the last two days offer discouraging news for the White House. In the Washington Post/ABC News poll, public confidence in the president has hit a new low. Six in 10 voters say they lack faith in the president. In a CBS News poll, 54 percent of the country disapprove of his handling of the economy, the highest number to date. In a Pew Research Center/National Journal poll, the number of Americans who approve of the president’s health care legislation, the signature achievement of his presidency so far, sits at an anemic 35 percent.

When politicians are confronted with bad poll numbers, they often say that these surveys are just a “snapshot in time.” That can be true. Fortunes can change. Doom is not locked in. But what’s so bad about these surveys is that they paint a very dark picture about the president’s ability to brighten the future. If Obama can’t improve things for Democrats, no one can. And as bad as the president’s numbers are, the Democrats in Congress are in even worse shape.

Candidate Obama used to joke about rays of sunshine coming in when he started to speak. Now he brings the clouds. He’s spent a great deal of time talking about the Recovery Act and health care reform, but the political fortunes of those programs are dismal, which suggests his ability to persuade and change minds is seriously damaged.

He has been trying to sell the success of his stimulus legislation for months in speeches, interviews, and events all over the country. In the CBS poll, only 23 percent think it has helped the economy. Only 13 percent think it has helped them personally. Despite all of his efforts, people are either ignoring him or tuning him out—or they can’t hear him over the bad economic news. Whatever the reason, the best argument Obama has for how he and Democrats have addressed the issue people care the most about is one that people aren’t buying.

The situation on health care is worse. There have been some signs that public opinion about health care was improving a little, but the Pew and CBS polls offer a darker outlook. Forty-nine percent disapprove of the new legislation, according to the CBS poll, and only 36 percent approve. Pew has nearly identical numbers.

This is not the way the president said things would turn out last March in a stirring speech he gave to Democrats on the eve of the House health care vote: “I am actually confident that it will end up being the smart thing to do politically because I believe that good policy is good politics. … Betsy [Markey] is in a tough district. The biggest newspaper is somewhat conservative, as Betsy described. They weren’t real happy with health care reform. They were opposed to it. Betsy, despite the pressure, announced that she was in favor of this bill. And lo and behold, the next day that same newspaper runs an editorial saying, you know what, we’ve considered this, we’ve looked at the legislation, and we actually are pleased that Congresswoman Markey is supporting the legislation.”

The president has worked hard to improve the political fortunes of health care, but it hasn’t worked. He might not want to try anymore. It’s not just that he’s ineffective. In the CBS poll, the only issue Obama was faulted for spending too much time on was health care. If he spends more time trying to convince people of the merits of health care (which only 6 percent told CBS was the country’s most important problem), he risks being criticized for not spending enough time on the economy, which 39 percent of the country think is the most important problem. Fifty-two percent already think he’s not spending enough time addressing economic problems.

The best news for the president and Democrats is that 62 percent of those polled say that Congress should extend unemployment benefits. Republicans have blocked legislation that would do so and the president has gone after them for it. The White House also takes comfort in the fact that the country has an even lower opinion of Republicans in Congress than they do of the president. Still, 51 percent of the country tell the Washington Post that they’ll vote for a Republican to put a brake on Obama policies, and those who say they are most likely to vote in the November elections say they prefer the GOP over Democratic rule by 56 percent to 41 percent. If that sentiment continues, the White House will have a bummer summer followed by a terrible fall.

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