Why Obama Has to Worry About Polls

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Jim Young / Reuters

George W. Bush used to insist that he didn't read polls, and on the off chance that he did, he didn't care anyway. "I don't give a darn," the former President famously said early this year just before the end of his term, when CNN's Larry King pointed to his anemic approval ratings.

Aides to President Obama, by contrast, have charted a more nuanced course, alternately embracing and dismissing the polls. During a recent meeting with reporters, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs compared the President's daily approval ratings to a heart monitor, saying, "I don't put a lot of stake in, never have, in the EKG that is the daily Gallup trend." By contrast, senior aide David Axelrod often mentions poll numbers, on everything from the rising international reputation of the United States to the resilience of Obama's personal likability numbers. "Every poll I've seen suggests that even among those who don't support necessarily his policies, there is a warm feeling," said Axelrod, in a recent interview with U.S. News.

For much of this year, such poll talk was not much of a factor, as the results generally followed the typical pattern of first-term presidencies, with a strong honeymoon period that slowly petered out. But as Obama approaches the first year mark of his presidency, Democratic and Republican strategists are beginning to look more closely at the polls. Here's why:

1. Congress cares about polls.
Obama's success depends upon his ability to get Congress to do his bidding, and as the polls have soured, this has become a much tougher proposition. With the President's approval rating now dipping below 50% in most polls, Democratic pollsters have begun to sound the alarm. In a recent public memo, Celinda Lake, of Lake Research Partners, pointed to a sobering statistic: Presidents with approval ratings below 50% have lost an average of 41 House seats in mid-term elections. (Democrats currently have an 81-seat advantage in the House, so Republicans could gain control of the chamber with a 41-seat pick-up in 2010.) To make matters worse, Republicans now win the generic Congressional ballot by two points, the first time the GOP has outstripped Democrats since January of 2002, according to the George Washington University Battleground Poll.

2. Health-care reform has become a burden.
Something has gone wrong on the long trail to historic health reform. For one thing, Americans no longer support what is going on. The recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 44% of the country believe it would be better not to pass any plan at all, while 41% said it would be better to pass the plan. As recently as October, the same poll showed those numbers practically reversed. One reason is a misalignment of priorities. The health care debate has, ironically, intensified American contentment with their current health coverage. The July Battleground poll found that 84% of Americans were "satisfied" with their health care. The same poll in December found 91% of Americans satisfied with their health care. By contrast, 51% of the same group of people rated their economic situation as "just fair" or "poor," a clear signal that people care far more about the economy and jobs than they do about their co-pays and deductibles. In the Battleground poll, 29% of Americans said they feel insecure about their access to health care, compared to 48% who said they feel insecure about their families' finances.

3. The Obama movement has gone missing.
The 2009 elections in New Jersey and Virginia were initially talked about by Obama allies as a test of the President's organizing power. By the time the votes were counted, however, with Republicans winning two Democratic seats, no one at the White House wanted to claim any responsibility. That's because the remarkable enthusiasm that greeted Obama's victory in 2008, with record turnout among independents, blacks and young people, had gone away, along with the minions of Obama organizers. "I think that we all thought, and I think that the President thought, that they would stay with it because we would create this movement," explained Lake, at a recent reporter briefing organized by the Christian Science Monitor. In fact, the enthusiasm gap bodes poorly for 2010, when Obama will be trying to minimize losses in the House and the Senate. According to the recent Battleground poll, just under two-thirds of Democrats say they are extremely likely to vote in upcoming elections, compared to 77% of Republicans and Independents.

4. Keynes doesn't play in Peoria.
Obama has followed a traditionally Keynesian economic path in responding to the recession — temporarily increasing government spending to make up for slack in the economy. But voters, who continue to suffer from the downturn, are not so impressed. In a recent focus group with independent voters who voted for Obama, Republican pollster Ed Goeas found significant concern about government spending. "There was a tipping point that occurred," he said. "The biggest thing I have seen beyond the intensity and the independents moving has been this focus, in the middle of a very bad economy, on spending." He continued, "They have moved from a maybe-we-have-to-do-this to a how-are-we going-to-pay-for-this. It's going to be our children and our grandchildren." Both the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have announced that they recognize this concern and plan to devote a significant part of the spring addressing the deficit. As Lake puts it, "We haven't proven to the voters that we are spending money to produce jobs for them."

5. Washington has not changed.
President Obama continues to get higher ratings for personal likability and trustworthiness than his Republican foes. But there are also signs that Obama is beginning to feel the taint of the long-standing anger against politics and politicians in general. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found in December that 61% of the country has only some confidence, or no confidence, in Obama having the right set of goals and priorities to be President. Meanwhile, America's confidence in general remains in the gutter. When asked if they trust that government will do what is right, 32% said almost never and 46% said only some of the time. In the Battleground poll, Democrats, Republicans and Independents all disapprove of the job Congress is doing, though the numbers among swing-voting independents are most concerning for the party in power. A full 77% of this group disapprove of the Congress's job performance. Only 15% approve.