The Honeymoon Is Not Over
Obama's challenge: get the public to like his policies as much as it likes him.
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.