ANALYSIS

Obama’s Ideas Offer Ray of Hope

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President Barack Obama holds a meeting on Libya in the Situation Room of the White House, March 15, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Oct. 2, 2011, 8 a.m.

On the core is­sues of cre­at­ing jobs and con­trolling the fed­er­al budget de­fi­cit, Pres­id­ent Obama faces a con­sist­ent di­vide in pub­lic opin­ion””par­tic­u­larly among whites””that could of­fer his best op­por­tun­ity in the 2012 race to over­come dis­ap­point­ment in his per­form­ance so far.

On both the de­fi­cit and the eco­nomy, a sub­stan­tial plur­al­ity of white voters say they trust Re­pub­lic­ans more than Obama to find an­swers, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent United Tech­no­lo­gies/Na­tion­al Journ­al Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion sur­veys. These res­ults track find­ings in oth­er polls that show Obama’s over­all ap­prov­al rat­ing among white voters skid­ding be­low 35 per­cent in some cases.

And yet when asked to com­pare spe­cif­ic strategies from Obama and Re­pub­lic­ans to re­vive job growth or con­trol the de­fi­cit, the pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­als con­sist­ently scored bet­ter in the Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion polls.

That stark and stable con­trast sug­gests that one of the key ques­tions in 2012 will be wheth­er voters primar­ily look back, or ahead, when cast­ing their pres­id­en­tial bal­lots. Tra­di­tion­ally, voters base their de­cisions about in­cum­bent pres­id­ents primar­ily on a back­ward-look­ing judg­ment about his per­form­ance, notes Emory Uni­versity polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Alan Ab­ramow­itz. But that pat­tern, he ar­gues, won’t ne­ces­sar­ily hold next year be­cause voters are sour­ing on the GOP at least as fast as they are on Obama.

“Gen­er­ally in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions when an in­cum­bent is run­ning, the ret­ro­spect­ive judg­ments are usu­ally more im­port­ant rather than the pro­spect­ive judg­ments,” said Ab­ramow­itz. “But I’m not sure [that will con­tin­ue] be­cause what you’re find­ing [in these polls] about the pref­er­ence for what Obama is pro­pos­ing over what the Re­pub­lic­ans are pro­pos­ing ties in with some of the doubts voters are ex­press­ing about the Re­pub­lic­an Party.”

The con­trast between pro­spect­ive and ret­ro­spect­ive judg­ments on Obama in the Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion polls is strik­ing. In an early Septem­ber sur­vey, for in­stance, the share of re­spond­ents who said Obama’s policies made the eco­nomy worse was nearly double the per­cent­age who said he im­proved con­di­tions; among whites the ra­tio was al­most three-to-one.

But when the poll asked re­spond­ents to as­sess five ideas from Obama and five from the GOP to cre­ate jobs, Obama’s pro­pos­als gen­er­ally drew more sup­port, even among groups usu­ally skep­tic­al of him. For in­stance, white in­de­pend­ents were the most sup­port­ive of cut­ting the taxes of em­ploy­ers who hire new work­ers and provid­ing states money to avoid lay­offs. They also liked Obama’s pro­pos­al to help homeown­ers re­fin­ance their mort­gages at lower in­terest rates and to spend more on fed­er­al in­fra­struc­ture pro­jects. The only GOP job-cre­ation idea crack­ing the top five for these swing voters was passing a bal­anced-budget amend­ment that lim­ited fed­er­al spend­ing.

Obama’s job-cre­ation ideas also took four of the top five spots in the sur­vey among white wo­men, both with and without col­lege de­grees. His ideas took three of the top four spots for non-col­lege white men, who have res­isted Obama from the out­set. Only among col­lege-edu­cated white men did GOP ideas dom­in­ate, tak­ing four of the top five spots.

Ques­tions about the de­fi­cit in a mid-Septem­ber sur­vey pro­duced the same pat­tern. Whites strongly pre­ferred the GOP over Obama when asked which side they trust to blot the red ink. But Obama’s spe­cif­ic ideas to do so grabbed four of the top five rungs among whites when they were asked again to judge five pro­pos­als from each side. Re­peal­ing Obama’s health care law did draw sub­stan­tial sup­port among white men (if not white wo­men), but a core GOP pro­pos­al to con­vert Medi­care in­to a vouch­er-like sys­tem, freeze dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing through 2019, and trans­form Medi­caid in­to a block grant all faced wide­spread res­ist­ance among whites.

Re­pub­lic­an poll­ster Glen Bol­ger pre­dicts such pref­er­ences won’t be­ne­fit Obama much in 2012 if his per­form­ance as­sess­ments don’t im­prove. “By that point in time he will have had four years, and if he hasn’t got­ten the job done, why would you re­hire the guy?” Bol­ger said.

But Joel Ben­en­son, Obama’s poll­ster, says that voters’ as­sess­ments of the two sides’ pro­spect­ive agen­das will not only play the largest role next year, but will also shape their ret­ro­spect­ive judg­ments on Obama’s per­form­ance. “Elec­tions are about choices. When there is a choice in front of these folks who are fight­ing every day to grab back some of the se­cur­ity they had “¦ they are go­ing to look a little bit back­wards, more at the [cur­rent] mo­ment and more than any­thing at go­ing for­ward,” he said. “They know that the old rules haven’t ap­plied in a while.”

Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Mark Penn, who helped guide Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s 1996 reelec­tion and served as the chief strategist for Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s bid for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion in 2008, says the key for an in­cum­bent pres­id­ent, es­pe­cially dur­ing hard times, is for­mu­lat­ing an agenda at­tract­ive enough that voters be­lieve “that the second term is go­ing to ful­fill the prom­ise of your first.” And on that front, he ar­gues, Obama, des­pite the pos­it­ive re­sponses in the Con­gres­sion­al Con­nec­tion Poll, still has his work cut out for him. “So far I don’t think we’ve seen that de­vel­op­ment of a big second-term agenda,” Penn says.

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