Last week the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania held a focus group to flesh out how voters who went for President Obama in 2008 view his presidency 17 months later.
The conclusion: They still like him and want to see him succeed. The bad news: Even when he succeeds, he still fails to show them that he's got the common touch or the political savvy to promote his achievements.
Moderated by veteran polling guru Peter Hart, the focus group featured 12 adults from Sacramento, Calif., who, in Hart's words, represent the "group that put Obama into office." Six were Democrats, two were Republicans and four were "Democratic-leaning" independents.
If anything, members of the focus group wanted to see Obama act more like -- gasp -- Nancy Pelosi.
The good news for Obama: Their support for him is still solid. All said he "met" their expectations. John, a Republican salesman who voted for President Bush in '04, said that while he thought Obama had "sort of fallen short," he gave him credit for "at least" trying. Tovah, a Republican hairdresser, said she was "satisfied she voted for him." When asked about their views of the mood of the country, more expressed optimism than pessimism.
The passage of the health care bill, notes Hart, gave these folks "a reason to be happy he [Obama] was president." Seven thought the bill would be eventually seen as historic. Even so, only three said they felt "positive" about the new health care law, while eight had mixed views of it. A number, including a man on Medicare and a woman on disability, expressed concern that the new law would affect them negatively. Almost all said it didn't go far enough. This suggests that Obama's sales job isn't limited to those who are currently against him.
Moreover, these folks weren't happy with Obama's stewardship of the economy. On a scale of 1 to 10, eight gave Obama's handling of the economy a five or less. And many were frustrated with his stance on Afghanistan and offshore drilling.
The bigger issue, noted Hart in an interview after the focus group, is that the fight over health care reform "indicated even to his admirers that he's not the political being" that they'd like him to be. If anything, they wanted to see him act more like -- gasp -- Nancy Pelosi. This had less to do with ideology than with style. When asked to describe Pelosi, respondents called her "strong," "shrewd," "powerful" and "persistent." When describing Obama, they used words like "intelligent," "pragmatic" and "hopeful." More than one said he needed to be "more arrogant"; another wanted him to be "more cunning."
They also worried that, unlike Presidents Ronald Reagan or John F. Kennedy, Obama lacks a certain "likability" and has trouble "connecting with people."
This isn't new. The "is he tough enough?" and is "he too professorial?" questions were thrown at him throughout the '08 campaign. Many who voted for Obama hoped he would overcome those shortcomings. Instead, what they saw was that in the first real fight of his presidency he became defined by them.
These voters aren't interested in jumping ship, at least not yet. And, for them, the GOP doesn't hold any allure. Even so, while they want to see Obama succeed, they worry that even when he does, he remains the underdog.