Friday, July 31, 2009

Land of Disenchantment

I've been reading something today that I find intriguing yet puzzling. It's an article by Dan Balz in the Washington Post.

A little background is in order here. Yesterday, I wrote about a focus group in Maryland. Even the participants who didn't vote for Barack Obama in last year's election spoke highly of him.

In his article (which carries the headline "Obama's Poll Numbers Don't Add Up to Whole Story"), Balz wonders if the polls are wrong and contends that the poll numbers "don't entirely capture the dynamic of this moment in the Obama presidency."

That may well be true. But I'm finding it hard to get a handle on what, exactly, Balz was expecting from the focus group and what he thinks may be the implications for the future.

"Based on the polls," he writes, "what (pollster Peter) Hart and the others watching the group discussion Wednesday night had expected was that ... these 12 independent voters would, almost uniformly, speak of their disenchantment with Obama and their concerns about his leadership."

Well, there has been some slippage in Obama's approval rating. But that is normal. I've cited examples of this before. After six months in office, a president's "honeymoon" is usually over. All the polls I have seen suggest that Obama remains personally popular, but support is lower for his policy initiatives.

I'm not entirely sure why Balz thought the focus group (which included seven Obama voters, four McCain voters and one Nader voter) would be disenchanted. Which poll gave him that impression? He doesn't really say — except at the end of the article, when he makes a brief reference to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll that contained "warning signs" for the administration.

A majority of respondents still approves of Obama personally. It is the individual policy proposals that have been in trouble. And the devil, as the saying goes, is in the details.

The public has been hesitant to support Obama's health care reform plan. The public is edgy about talk of a second stimulus. The unemployed are not encouraged by an economy that continues to shed hundreds of thousands of jobs each month (we'll see what the latest jobless figures are next week) after Obama and the congressional Democrats confidently asserted in February that the stimulus would start producing jobs almost immediately.

Now, no one knows what the future holds. And maybe Obama and Joe Biden were correct earlier this month when they said they "misread" the economy and they received incomplete information. To be sure, the first three months of this year were brutal.

Unemployed Americans have been taking one body blow after another. But most of them will probably tell you that they don't blame the president for the state of the economy. They just want to see improvement. They want to see more jobs available and fewer hoops they have to jump through just to get an interview.

They want to be able to provide the basics for themselves and their families. They want to feel that they are contributing to the economy.

If the improvement actually is there, the Democrats haven't done an adequate job of getting the message out. The unemployed are scared, but most are willing to be patient, as Obama has urged. Their bill collectors are another matter. So they're feeling a sense of urgency that many may not have felt even a few months ago.

As Balz points out, "Obama has hit a difficult patch at six months." Indeed he has. It seems to happen to every president, and it seems to be more profound whenever expectations for the incoming president are high. Personally, I can't remember a time in my life when expectations were higher than they were when Obama took office. The networks followed his every movement as he made his way to Washington — as if a savior truly was coming.

So it should come as no surprise that a bit of the luster has disappeared — especially now that unemployment is nearing a double–digit rate nationally and is already well past that in more than a dozen states.

It is probably appropriate to wonder if the polls take into account all the dynamics. But, please, tell me a poll that can do that six months into a president's term and 16 months before the next election.

By July 1993, Bill Clinton had had more than his share of bad publicity, but I don't recall any polls that suggested that his party would lose 54 seats in the House and nine seats in the Senate the next year. In July 1981, Ronald Reagan's numbers were starting to decline, but I don't remember any surveys that indicated the Republicans would lose two dozen House seats in the midterm elections.

Obama doesn't have to worry about running for re–election next year. But more than 470 senators and representatives do have to worry about it — unless they have already decided not to run, in which case their parties have to worry about holding the open seats.

Well, both Clinton and Reagan were re–elected. But their first–year choices and proposals had a lot to do with their parties' fortunes in the midterm elections.

Those presidents learned the hard way that few presidents escape the political backlash that occurs in the midterms, and those who do typically do so because the country is rallying behind its president at a time of crisis. George W. Bush was a rare exception to the rule, thanks to the anxiety that was spawned by the terrorist attacks. John F. Kennedy was another exception because of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Can Obama learn the lessons of history well enough to achieve his goals and still keep his advantage in Congress?

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