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POLITICS

Obama And The Swells

Polls show President Obama gaining support from both affluent and blue-collar voters.

COVER STORYFinancial Risk Cuts Deeper, Poll FindsA broad array of Americans shares the sense of being susceptible to greater financial uncertainty, according to a new Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll. [more...]

Detailed Charts Of Survey Responses

As President Obama approaches the 100-day mark, one of his principal political assets is the breadth of his public approval. One of his principal challenges may be extending that personal support to his agenda.

Both ends of that equation are illuminated in a national survey released this week. The Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll explores how Americans manage the financial risks of everyday life -- and where they look for help. The survey, which polled 1,200 adults from April 8 through 14, found that Obama enjoys broad support. His job-approval rating stood at 61 percent, with just 28 percent disapproving. At least 57 percent of voters in every age group gave him positive marks. So did at least 55 percent of voters in every income category, including six-figure earners. Republicans have cooled toward Obama (just 26 percent approve), but they make up only about one-fourth of the electorate; and Obama remains dominant among Democrats (89 percent approval) and solid among independents (61 percent approval).

 

Especially notable is Obama's position among several high-status occupational groups not traditionally part of the Democratic coalition. Although the major lobbying groups for small business usually align with Republicans, the poll found that 58 percent of the self-employed approve of Obama's performance. He receives a 55 percent approval rating from "knowledge workers" -- college-educated professionals, such as engineers, consultants, and lawyers. Obama's approval stands at 53 percent among the swells in the corner office, the people who identified themselves as senior business managers. That's high for a Democrat.

Those positive early reviews underscore Obama's opportunity to build an unusually expansive electoral coalition. Arguably, the past generation's most important political trend has been the class inversion in the two parties' support. Since the 1960s, Republicans have gained enormous ground among blue-collar white voters, many of them conservative on cultural and national security issues, who once anchored the Democratic coalition. Since the 1980s, Democrats have advanced among well-educated and affluent voters who are fiscally moderate but lean left on the same social and foreign-policy issues that have moved blue-collar families toward the GOP.

In the 2008 election, Obama struggled with blue-collar whites but extended the Democratic inroads upscale. This new survey shows him improving his position since then with both camps and further loosening the Republican grip on well-off groups that soured on George W. Bush. But it also pinpoints where Obama's agenda could strain his ties to those upscale voters.

 

Obama wants to expand government's reach to confront a wide range of challenges, such as health care, for which he is devising a universal coverage plan with congressional Democrats. In the survey, though, the upper-income groups supporting Obama generally don't look first to government for solutions. Overall, those polled split evenly -- 40 percent to 40 percent -- when asked whether ideas to improve their financial situation are more likely to come from business or government. But senior managers, the self-employed, knowledge workers, and the affluent all tilt sharply toward business. Likewise, those high-status groups are more inclined than the country overall to view personal action, rather than government programs or business initiatives, as the best way to achieve greater security in paying for retirement, maintaining a stable income, and accumulating assets.

Health care, in two respects, conspicuously departs from this pattern. First, the country overall leans relatively more toward government and less toward personal action (such as lifestyle changes) as the best way to ensure affordable care. And, in contrast to their view on other issues, the high-status groups are as likely as everyone else to look primarily to government for solutions. Drew Altman, president of the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, says that the number to watch in the health care debate is the percentage of people who think that reform will make their family better-off rather than worse-off. In the Heartland poll, the first group was roughly twice as large as the second. Most upscale groups divided about the same way. That's encouraging for Obama.

Still, given the priority they place on autonomy and their skepticism about Washington, these better-off Obama supporters may be especially sensitive to charges that his initiative will reduce choice by increasing government control over health care. Avoiding the Big Government label that helped sink President Clinton's universal coverage proposal may be critical not only to Obama's sustaining approval for his reform plan but also to his solidifying his unusually diverse coalition of support.

This article appears in the April 25, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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