By the time you read this, President Obama will have addressed a joint session of Congress outlining his latest proposal to improve the country’s economic situation, which is currently teetering on the edge of a double-dip recession. The employment picture is as challenging as any a president has faced since Franklin Roosevelt.
Republicans will also have reacted to that address. It is highly doubtful, however, that anything will have changed from the moments I typed these words until the moment you are reading them. White House advisers have to worry about whether the American people have reached for the remote and hit the “mute” button, whether they have simply stopped listening—as they did to President Bush in 2006 and to his father during a previous economic slowdown in 1992.
It wasn’t surprising when take-no-prisoners, conservative Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., said in a speech of his own, “I’m, frankly, very tired of speeches. I don’t want to be disrespectful to the president, but what I want to see is something in writing.” My guess is that DeMint would scoff at anything the president did, in fact, submit in writing. The question is whether millions of Americans who either voted for Obama or at least seriously considered it, are no longer listening to him, not out of malice, but because they’ve given up on him.
The polling suggests that the president is within shouting distance of the tipping point when a critical mass of voters become so cynical about politics and politicians—Democrats and Republicans, the White House and Capitol Hill—that they don’t care about words anymore. They will believe in an economic turnaround only if they see it, feel it, and experience it. They will believe that the system works, that Washington matters, if they see results, and not until then.
“The collapse in confidence in government has substantially eroded already weak consumer confidence.” --GOP pollster Bill McInturff
So, here is a test. Now that you have heard, or at least read about, Obama’s address to Congress and the Republicans’ reaction, spend 10 minutes looking at “A Pivot Point in American Opinion: The Debt-Ceiling Negotiation and Its Consequences” at http://bit.ly/rjjTXj. It’s a fascinating and sobering 36-slide presentation of polling data, focus-group findings, and observations prepared by Republican pollster Bill McInturff. After reading McInturff’s report, ask yourself whether anything either the president or Republican congressional leaders said fundamentally changes the jobless problem, the political climate, or, for that matter, the way you perceive the players in Washington.
McInturff’s thesis is that over the past 30 years, certain “signal events” have come to define American politics and change the course of history. Specifically, he points to “the Iranian hostage crisis, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Lehman Brother’s collapse, and the recessions that defined the 1980, 1992, and 2008 presidential campaigns” as such defining events. Based on considerable polling by his firm, Public Opinion Strategies, and jointly with Democrat Peter Hart in their work on the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, as well as on other public polls, McInturff argues in a cover memo, “The debt-ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government. It has led to a scary erosion in confidence in both, at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded.”
He continues, “It is important to recognize how fragile economic perceptions were headed into the final stretch of the debt-ceiling negotiation. Along with Hart Research [Associates], we have been doing economic tracking roughly every quarter from 2007 through today for CNBC. Workers’ perceptions of their likelihood to get a raise, Americans’ confidence in the stock market, and homeowners’ perceptions of their home value were as weak or weaker in June 2011 than they have been at any point during this four-year period.”
The memo goes on to assert, “Americans’ attitudes about the debt ceiling are not only based on the actual outcome but are primarily derived from the manner in which this issue was debated and resolved. Their views about this process are clear, and are overwhelmingly negative.” McInturff contends, “The perception of how Washington handled the debt-ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”
Moreover, he says, “the collapse of confidence in government has substantially eroded already weak consumer confidence. Today’s consumer-confidence rating is the fourth lowest since 1952. Make no mistake: This collapse of economic confidence is not an independent event driven only by economic reality. This sharp a drop in consumer confidence is a direct consequence of the lack of confidence in our political system and its leaders.”
McInturff concludes, “As our firm conducted focus groups … the change in tone in the wake of the debt-ceiling negotiation was striking. We are entering a new phase of the American political dialogue that has been irrevocably shifted in a way that will prove difficult to predict. Historically, though, this type of deep voter anger, unease, and economic pessimism leads to unstable and unpredictable political outcomes.”
So after listening to or hearing about the president’s ideas and the GOP response, and after reading McInturff’s penetrating analysis, ask yourself: Has anything changed?
This article appears in the September 10, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.