Obama's Soft Polls

“His numbers are still high.” “People like him.” “The President has the strong support of a majority of Americans.” These observations are common throughout the blogosphere and within the punditocracy to describe the current standing of President Obama. Trouble is, they rely upon a very thin and limited measurement: presidential approval ratings.

Most polls currently have President Obama’s “approval ratings” around 60%. That is not surprising, and likely will remain there or increase in the coming weeks. He’s likeable. Much of his campaign was built on his personal appeal. Plenty of the nearly 70 million people who voted for him are not about to second-guess their own judgment just five months later. Most Americans want the president — whoever he is — to do well, since they view (rightly or wrongly) a nexus between his success or failure and that of the nation.

But adulation abroad and a perception of charm and charisma at home is not a mandate for the type of sweeping transformations to the domestic economy and foreign policy currently on the table. After all, Candidate Obama ran on “change we can believe in,” not “revolution you must pay for.”

If past is prologue, President Obama, like his presidential predecessors, will face approval rating ebbs and flows and an occasional reminder that likeability and leadership are not the same. President George Herbert Walker Bush enjoyed a stratospheric 92% approval rating following Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and got less than half of that — 37% — in his re-election loss less than two years later.  His son, the 43rd President, enjoyed the approval of at least 50% of the country for more than three years after 9-11, but left office at 33%. President Clinton’s approval ratings seemed to spike up with each new salacious detail of his extracurricular details. Go figure.   

If approval ratings are to be the standard-bearer, then Congress might as well not bother showing up for work. Their approval is around 34% and since the Dems have taken control, has hovered below 40%.  During the second term (2008) of the Pelosi-Reid-led 110th Congress, their approval stayed below 30%.

Approval ratings for the person should not be confused with approval ratings for the person’s policies. President Obama’s approval ratings tend to be about 15-20 points higher than popular support for some of his policies.  For example, the latest Newsweek figures give the new POTUS a 61% approval rating, but in the same poll, less than one-half of Americans offer their support to the way he is handling the economy (48%), taxes (48%), and the federal budget deficit (42%).  

Mr. Obama seems to cash in his popularity to forge agenda items that are not tops on the “wish list” of the people he serves. Strong majorities of Americans say his main priority should be the economy and jobs, while less than 5% want him to focus instead on abortion policy (most of whom are pro-life incidentally).  Why, then, has he made or proposed three major changes to abortion-related policy in the first 100 days?  He reversed the Mexico City policy, which means U.S. taxpayers, including those who morally object, will now pay for abortions performed in other countries and for the destruction of embryos for research purposes. And doctors, pharmacists and nurses face losing their “right to choose” to not perform a procedure that offends their consciences.

Another challenge for Mr. Obama is that a majority of the nation tells pollsters that they subscribe to an ideology different from his. In our most recent nationwide polling figures, Democrats enjoyed a six-point advantage over Republicans (39% vs. 33%) in political party identification, but the number of people who describe themselves as “conservative” outnumbers liberals by more than 2-to-1.  This is why liberals now call themselves progressives and why the mainstream media cast everything as between Democrats and Republicans rather than conservatives and liberals (unless they choose the preceding adjective, like “right-wing,” or “Christian crazy” or the newest, “Tea Party Nut Jobs.”)

And three months into Mr. Obama’s presidency, twice the number of people thinks the country is headed on the wrong track rather than in the right direction. Though the spin-doctors will revert to script and blame President Bush for this, the fact is that millions of Americans are nervous, angry, and impatient with what they see as a lack of results and the wrong priorities in what is now the Obama economy.

Consider that according to the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans prefer a “smaller government [with] fewer services,” up from 42% prior to the November election.  In contrast, 40% favor a “bigger government [with] more services.”  Since taking office, President Obama has successfully lobbied for a nearly $800 trillion stimulus package and a $3.6 trillion budget that includes “gimmes” for corporations who have failed to police greed and incompetence and can’t cut it in the free market.  

In a September 2008 survey we conducted with a Democratic firm on behalf of American Solutions for Winning the Future, we found that “when a company faces a potential failure due to poor internal mismanagement” 68% of likely voters would prefer “bankruptcy for the company, even if it means investors lose money and there is harm to the stock market.”  In contrast, just 19% believed that in such a situation that “government should step in and support the companies with taxpayer dollars to avoid bankruptcy and protect the money of investors.”  

And in a Fox News survey, 55% of registered voters — including 37% of Democrats — thought the government should not “increase taxes on the wealthiest individuals so that nobody gets to be too rich.” President Obama (and unimaginative governors like New York’s David Paterson or Delaware’s Jack Markell) are suffocating small businesses and discouraging aspiring entrepreneurs whose annual revenues often fall into clever Democratic definition of “wealth.”  

Approval means something, but it should not be confused with respect, agreement, confidence, blind faith or a blank check.  It is not a commitment; for many, it is a polite nod of the head or shrug of the shoulder. Would you marry the one person with whom you are deeply in love or the 10 of whom you approve?