The bad thing about being awash in a flood of polling data is that the survey results don't always agree. Just as I begin to settle on one conclusion, new figures appear to support a different one.
The plethora of new polls initially appeared to indicate that President Obama's job-approval ratings were starting to take their first -- some would say inevitable -- dip. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey by two of the best pollsters in the business placed Obama's job approval at 56 percent. In the Gallup Organization's tracking polls, his approval had dropped to 59 percent four times this year but had always climbed back into the 60s. In the past week, though, that number dipped to 57 percent and held there for several days, suggesting that his "trading range" had declined a bit. A CBS News/New York Times poll, however, pegged Obama's approval rating at a healthy 63 percent. An ABC News/Washington Post poll placed it even higher, 65 percent, as his Gallup tracking number rose back up to 60 percent. Go figure.
Perhaps, the best way to make sense of these seemingly contradictory results is to see the president's lowest approval numbers -- 56 percent and 57 percent -- as the current floor and to see the highest ones -- 63 percent and 65 percent -- as the current ceiling.
When we look deeper into the surveys' results, we see that most Americans like Obama personally -- that is, except for the 25 to 30 percent who still consider themselves Republicans. Most people generally subscribe to his goals but are troubled by the specifics and the costs of achieving them. They definitely want to see significant health care reform, but they worry about how an overhaul could affect them. They want to see something done about the environment and global warming and want to make the U.S. more energy-efficient and independent, but they are nervous about how the changes will impact them. They want the government to do what it can to turn the economy around, but they worry about the price tag. The public shows a willingness to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, but it is reserving the right to worry about how his goals will work out in the end and how much they will cost.
With regard to the economy, the public's focus seems to be shifting from "Do what it takes to get us out" to "Holy mackerel, look how much they spent to get us out of this mess!" Interestingly, this hesitation comes just as real signs suggest that the economic downturn may be bottoming out in this country. Some forecasters, notably the ISI Group, are even predicting modest economic growth of 2 percent in the third quarter of this year, 3 percent in the fourth quarter, and 3.5 percent for 2010.
Most people generally subscribe to President Obama's goals but are troubled by the specifics and the costs of achieving them.
Indeed, after watching the federal government spend huge amounts of money over the past eight and a half years, Americans seem to be developing a concern about costs and deficits. Their cautiousness matches up with an increasing personal savings rate and other rather curious signs of a newfound austerity. We see front-page stories in The Washington Post about the surge in vegetable gardens and about more vacationers driving rather than flying to their destinations. These speak to a frugality that would have seemed out of place just a few years ago.
One thing that I find particularly fascinating is that many people, including some in my family, who always took the Amtrak Metroliner or the Delta or US Airways shuttles to New York, are now riding one of the express buses that go between D.C. and the Big Apple for $20 to $25 each way. These buses are carrying people who normally wouldn't be caught dead on a Greyhound. It is certainly an exaggeration to compare these days to the Great Depression, which followed the wretched excesses of the period from the Gay '90s to the Roaring '20s, but there is more than a faint resemblance.
Perhaps the first two years of the Obama administration will be focused on getting the country out of the recession and doing big and bold things, making painful concessions to do so. And perhaps then the focus will shift to paying for it all and trying to align the federal budget to this new and long overdue public desire for thrift.
This article appears in the June 27, 2009, edition of National Journal Magazine.