President Obama and the Democrats at Six Months

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1 Date: August 10, 2009 To: From: Friends of Democracy Corps and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Stanley B. Greenberg, James Carville and Andrew Baumann President Obama and the Democrats at Six Months The last few months have seen a confluence of extraordinary events that have shaken the lofty support for President Obama and the Democrats: An economy that contracted 6.4 percent in Obama s first quarter and accelerating unemployment that reduced the sense of hope and effectiveness that Obama brought when he came to office; Unrelieved news of government spending from TARP to the stimulus to the bailouts of G.M. and Chrysler and now to health care; The belief that special interests continue to be taken care of, demonstrated by the bailouts and on-going stories of excessive corporate bonuses; Extended gridlock on health care, with some Democrats attacking reform as bloated and unaffordable, without voters hearing what it brings to the middle class; A momentary cultural pullback from Obama caused by the Henry Louis Gates controversy, though we need more evidence to see if this is true and transitory. And while there are many issues Democrats need to address to change the momentum, there is nothing more important than entering a new chapter on health care reform where Democrats are united, showing progress, telling voters about the benefits, identifying the opponents of reform and framing the issue in ways that intensify support and take some of the heat out of worries about cost. The six difficult and eventful months of the Obama administration have taken the country beyond the Obama honeymoon and brought us back to the reality of a still struggling economy and the murky Washington process of trying to get things done. Two new surveys conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, one for Democracy Corps and the other for National Public Radio,

2 confirm a real, but not surprising, pullback from Obama and the Democrats. 1 Obama s job approval rating now stands at 53 percent, with percent disapproving, a six-point increase in disapproval since last month, with some evidence of a plateau. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and the Democratic majority in Congress have also seen a decline in their standing. But this is all about Obama and the Democrats, not the Republicans who have stayed static, showing no increase in their abysmal ratings, and are seen by voters as doing virtually nothing to help the country. How Obama and the Democrats standing will change from here is immensely dependent on how health care plays out. Congress passing serious health care reform, instead of gridlocking over the next two months is a pre-requisite for a Democratic comeback. To achieve that reform, Democrats must display greater unity, show real progress toward a final bill and tell voters about the concrete benefits of reform for Middle America while more effectively reassuring on costs. And, to maintain the Democratic ascendancy in the long-term, Obama must show strength (by demonstrating progress in breaking the gridlock), rebuild his unique relationship with voters, show determination to address long-term deficits, and he must address the struggling economy in the right way. Economic Woes, Spending Worries Most Important Factors in Obama s Losses In the first few months of this year, Obama s soaring popularity was sustained by a sense that the country was beginning to move in the right direction and augmented by the first rays of optimism that the economy was staring to improve. In October of last year, just 10 percent of voters thought the country was heading in the right direction. By, that number was up to percent. But since then, the trend has reversed, and in this latest survey for NPR the right track number is at just 38 percent, with significantly more than percent saying the country in heading in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, after rising slightly throughout the early part of this year, feelings about the state of the economy have leveled off at still very pessimistic levels as the economic recovery has seemed to stagnate. 1 This memo is based on two concurrent surveys conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner 22-26, The first was a survey of 1, voters conducted for Democracy Corps. The second was a survey if 8 likely 2010 voters, conducted in conjunction with Public Opinion Strategies for National Public Radio. Neither POS or NPR are responsible for the conclusions described here. All data cited are from the Democracy Corps survey unless otherwise noted. 2

3 Right track retreats after steady gains Generally speaking, do you think things in the country are going in the right direction, or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track? Right direction 2006 Election Wrong track Iraq surge Financial Crisis 2008 Election Jan-06 Jul-06 Jan-07 Jul-07 Jan-08 Jul-08 Jan-09 Jul-09 Net Difference *Note: From Democracy Corps surveys conducted the last several years. Data reflects likely voters data from survey conducted in conjunction with Public Opinion Strategies for National Public Radio of 8 likely voters nationwide. According to the NPR data, voters say former President Bush is still more responsible for the current state of the economy than President Obama by a 56 to 32 percent margin. However, evidence from both the NPR and Democracy Corps surveys shows that voters are beginning to get impatient. Again, according to the NPR survey, voters are split on the efficacy of Obama s economic policies with 45 percent saying they helped avert an even worse crisis while laying the foundation for our eventual recovery versus 48 percent who say the president s policies have merely run up the deficit while failing to end the recession or slow job loss. Meanwhile, voters are also becoming increasingly concerned about spending and the deficit. A 51 percent majority now say they are more worried that the president and Congress will spend too much, leading to higher deficits and taxes versus percent who are more worried that the president and Congress will fail to take strong action on priorities like the economy and health care. And 65 percent now describe Obama as a big spender, a 6-point increase since driven not primarily by Republicans but by moderate and conservative Democrats, a 51 percent majority of whom now say this describes Obama well (versus just percent who did in ). This combination of a perceived lack of progress on the economy and rising concerns about spending are among the primary factors driving down Obama s approval rating. Our regression modeling shows that among the attributes we measured about the president, that he has good plans for the economy is one of the top drivers of approval of Obama s overall job performance, and the president has seen an 8-point drop on that measure since. Moreover, voters do not believe that Obama is making progress fulfilling his promise to create or save 3 million jobs. Just percent of likely voters say Obama is keeping that promise, 3

4 with just 25 percent saying he is keeping the promise and making progress on it. Meanwhile, 54 percent say he is not keeping this promise, more that twice the number who said that when we asked this question shortly after the president s inauguration. 2 Again, our regression modeling shows that Obama s progress on his promise to create jobs is the strongest driver of his overall job approval among these measures, and the increasing percentage giving him low marks are helping to drag down his numbers. Obama is keeping promises, making progress, except jobs and ethics I'm going to read you a list of things that Barack Obama said he intended to do if elected president. For each one, please tell me whether Obama is keeping his promise or not keeping it. (If keeping) Is Obama making progress or not making progress? (If not keeping) Is Obama trying or not trying to keep his promises? Not keeping, not trying Not keeping, trying Keeping promise, making progress Keeping promise, no progress Don t Know Restoring America's standing in the world Shifting our focus from Iraq to Afghanistan to address the terrorist threat there Making health insurance affordable for all Americans Creating new industries in America centered on alternative energy Raising taxes on the very wealthiest and cutting taxes for the middle class Taking bold action to reduce global warming Reducing the influence of special interests and lobbyists in Washington Creating or saving 3 million jobs Both Obama and Democrats have lost ground when matched against the Republicans on several key economic issues. Both Obama and the Democrats are favored over the Republicans on the economy, but Obama s 9-point advantage is down significantly from his 26-point margin in March and the Democrats current 6-point edge is down from 13 points in March. And both Obama and his party have also lost considerable ground on the budget deficit and taxes (with Obama trailing on taxes and Democrats on the deficit for the first time), and both trail by significant margins on who would do a better job on government spending. Once again, our regression modeling shows the economy to be the top driver of both approval for Obama s job performance and the difference between the favorability ratings of the two parties. 2 Democracy Corps survey of 1,000 likely voters nationwide conducted January 26-29,

5 Obama has edge on Democrats overall, especially on taxes and deficit Now I am going to ask you something different. I am going to read a list of issues and I want you to tell me whether, overall, you think the Democrats or the Republicans would do a better job with this issue. If you do not know, just tell me and we will move on to the next item. Republicans much better Democrats/BHO much better BHO/Dems. Reps. Health care BHO v. Reps Dems v. Reps The economy BHO v. Reps Dems v. Reps The budget deficit BHO v. Reps Dems v. Reps Taxes BHO v. Reps Dems v. Reps Government Spending BHO v. Reps Dems v. Reps Gridlock, Lack of Progress Damages Perceptions of Obama as a Leader With Solutions The main problem facing Obama and the Democrats is the lack of perceptible economic progress, but it is not the only concern. A more general sense of gridlock and a lack of action on the priorities important to voters, including health care, are also taking their toll on Obama and the Democratic majority. Despite success on more minor, but still important, legislative priorities like credit card rules, health insurance for children and pay equity, voters are not generally not seeing progress on their major priorities, and instead see more of the same bickering, partisanship and gridlock they hoped might change with Obama and the increased Democratic majority. To gage this, we asked voters if Obama was making progress on eight promises he made during the campaign or shortly after his election. For just two, both dealing with national security, did more than 40 percent of voters say that Obama is making progress in keeping that promise. As a result, the president s biggest losses come on measures of leadership, hopefulness, and solutions to the country s problems. Though 64 percent still rate Obama as a strong leader, this is down 8 points since and is another measure that our regression modeling shows to be a strong driver of Obama s overall job approval. He has also lost 9 points on the attribute, has realistic solutions to the country s problems and 7 points on makes me feel hopeful about the future. However, Obama has seen no change in the last three months in the percent saying 5

6 that he is too liberal or that he will raise my taxes, and neither of these attributes proved to be significant drivers of his approval rating in our regression models. Obama positives on downswing Now, I am going to read you a list of words and phrases which people use to describe political figures. For each word or phrase, please tell me whether it describes Barack Obama very well, well, not too well, or not well at all. Has realistic solutions to the country s problems Willing to work with both parties Has good plans for the economy Strong leader Makes me hopeful about the future On your side Not well at all Very well Shift in Well Obama s ratings have also been impacted by the belief that he has been yet unable to change the Washington status quo where special interests get taken care of ahead of the American people. Aside from his promise to create or save 3 millions jobs, Obama has lost the most ground since on his promise to reduce the influence of special interests and lobbyists in Washington. Just 33 percent now say the president is keeping that promise, down from 45 percent in. Finally, Obama also may be suffering a cultural pullback from the controversy surrounding Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, though this needs further confirmation. While our surveys did not directly address this question, Obama did lose 6 points on being on your side, which may be a reflection of the Gates controversy. Moreover, the Pew Research Center recently released a survey that showed Obama s approval among non-hispanic whites slipping as the Gates controversy played out. 3 This could prove transitory as other issues recapture the front page. 3 Pew survey released 30, 2009, conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International among 1,6 adults nationwide between 22 and 26,

7 Obama s Standing Back to Election Night Levels All of this has combined to bring President Obama s once-lofty job approval and personal favorability numbers back to earth from their post-inauguration highs. Our survey for NPR found 53 percent of likely voters approving of Obama s job performance with percent disapproving. Obama s 53 percent approval matches the percentage of the vote he earned on Election Night in This represents a drop of just two points in Obama s approval since our last Democracy Corps survey in late June, 4 but more worrisome for Obama, disapproval has jumped six points, all of which comes directly from an increase in strong disapproval. Obama job approval sees slippage over last two months uptick in number strongly disapproving Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president? Total Approve Total Disapprove Strongly Approve Strongly Disapprove Inauguration Nov-08 Dec-08 Jan-09 Feb-09 Mar-09 Apr-09 May-09 Jun-09 Jul-09 Aug-09 *Note: From Democracy Corps surveys conducted the last several years. Before inauguration, question read: do you approve or disapprove of the job being done by Barack Obama as president-elect? Data reflects likely voters data from survey conducted in conjunction with Public Opinion Strategies for National Public Radio of 8 likely voters. Democrats have held steady in support of Obama, continuing to give him a 90 percent approval rating. However, as the post-election spirit of bipartisanship has faded back into typical partisan rancor in Washington, Republicans, especially the moderate Republicans who had been keeping a largely open mind about Obama, have returned home (in 36 percent of moderate Republicans approved of Obama versus percent who disapproved, now just 27 percent approve with 66 percent disapproving). 5 Obama has also lost ground among independents, as many of whom ( percent) now disapprove of Obama as approve of him (45 percent). 4 Democracy Corps survey of 1, voters nationwide conducted June -22, 2009; the cited data reflects results from 8 likely 2010 voters. 5 Democracy Corps survey of 1, voters nationwide conducted 22-26, 2009; the cited data reflects results from 851 likely 2010 voters. 7

8 Obama s personal favorability standing remains impressive, even though it too has dropped: 54 percent rate him favorably against 35 percent who do not a -point net positive favorability. His net favorability rating is still strong and is significantly higher than it was throughout the fall campaign (when it fluctuated between about +5 and +15), but it is down substantially from his post-inauguration highs. As with his approval rating, Obama has lost the most ground with Republicans and independents. He has also lost significant ground with southern voters, white younger men and white younger college educated voters and, perhaps most important, white union households (among whom his net favorability rating has declined from +32 to +16 points). Still, we should keep perspective. Obama s approval rating is equal to his impressive vote share on Election Night and is similar to the ratings former Presidents Bush and Clinton held at this point in their presidencies. Moreover, Obama s personal popularity is significantly higher than Bush or Clinton s at this point and remains higher than it was throughout the fall campaign. 6 Democrats Also Lose Ground, But Republicans Don t Gain Any. Like President Obama, the Democratic Party has also seen its standing erode in the last month. For the first time since just before the election in October of last year, 7 the Party s mean favorability thermometer score (as measure on a scale of 0 to 100 with 0 meaning very unfavorable and 100 meaning very favorable) has fallen under, and is now at 47.1 (down from 51.4 in June), with a statistically equal number rating the Party favorably (41 percent) and unfavorably ( percent). Unlike with Obama, the decline here was relatively even across the partisan spectrum with the Democratic Party losing ground among its base as well as independents and Republicans. The Party lost ground with some of the same groups that moved against Obama: the south, exurban voters, white younger men, and white union households, but it also saw a drop among voters under 30 whereas Obama s favorability rating rose among this group. The Democratic Congress also saw a decline in its favorability, though not as much as the Party did overall, dropping from a mean thermometer score of 48.3 a month ago to 45.5 now. After an increase following the 2008 elections, this represents a return to the levels the Democratic Congress held throughout the later part of 2007 and all of 2008 up until the election. 6 Bill Clinton data from Greenberg-Lake poll of 1,001 voters nationwide conducted 12-13, 93. George Bush data from Democracy Corps survey of 1,000 likely voters nationwide conducted September 4-6, Democracy Corps survey of 1,000 likely voters nationwide conducted September 16-18,

9 Obama, Democratic favorability slips but GOP doesn t gain Now, I'd like to rate your feelings toward some people and organizations, with 100 meaning a VERY WARM, FAVORABLE feeling; zero meaning a VERY COLD, UNFAVORABLE feeling; and meaning not particularly warm or cold Election Inauguration Barack Obama Democratic Party Democratic Congress Republican Party Republicans in Congress Nov-08 Dec-08 Jan-09 Feb-09 Mar-09 Apr-09 May-09 Jun-09 Jul-09 Aug-09 *Note: Data represents the MEAN ratings from Democracy Corps surveys conducted over the past five months. After 2008 election, data reflects 2010 likely voters. While the Democrats have clearly lost ground, the Republican Party shows no signs of rebounding and remains deeply unpopular, much more so than the Democrats. The Party s mean thermometer score of.2 is virtually unchanged from June and remains at the low levels the Party has suffered since just before the 2006 election. Overall, just 31 percent view the Party favorably while 47 percent view it unfavorably. And our survey for NPR also found voters with a very negative view of the Republican Party; just 24 percent of likely voters said that the Republican Party is doing a good job so far this year addressing the country s problems (for comparison, 38 percent said the Democrats are doing a good job). Still, these low numbers did not translate into a Democratic lead in the generic 2010 congressional vote, which is currently tied percent to percent. Health Care Becoming a Symbol For Many of Obama s Problems Perceptions about health care reform have been shaped by the congressional fight and its gridlock, but it has also become symbolic of many of the problems discussed above: excessive government spending and high cost without the apparent benefits, gridlock and the placement of special interests above the needs of mainstream voters. This has resulted in an extreme intensity of opposition to reform. Our NPR survey found a 47 to percent plurality opposing Obama and the Democrats health care proposal, but strong opposition beat strong support to 25 percent. Moreover, 72 percent of Republicans strongly oppose this plan, while only 49 percent of Democrats strongly support it. 9

10 Slight plurality oppose Obama s health care changes without description As you may have heard, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress are preparing a plan to change the health care system. From what you have heard about this plan, do you favor or oppose Obama and the Democrats' health care proposal? Strongly Favor Strongly Oppose Oppose Favor Oppose National Public Radio, 2009 In order to keep their common political tide rising, there is nothing more important for the Democrats than to change the narrative on health care. They must show unity, make progress toward getting a good plan and ruthlessly focus on the benefits health care reform will have for small business and the middle class instead of the insurance companies. They must also focus on how reform will restrain the micro and macro costs of health care and demonstrate a willingness to take dramatic steps in the long-term to address the deficit. 8 The Biggest Long-Term Challenge for Democrats: Lack of Job Growth The biggest challenge facing President Obama and Democrats in the long-term will be the growing gap between improving leading macro-economic indicators (such as the better than expected second quarter GDP numbers) and the slower return of jobs, income growth and personal wealth (though the better than expected employment figures give some initial hope of a quicker turnaround on this front). This will require some nuance. While voters view the last year as fairly ghastly for themselves and the economy, most see things getting better this year: two-thirds are optimistic about the economy, though only about half are similarly optimistic about their personal finances. That is a pretty big gap in expectations that requires the president 8 See Democracy Corps memo Creating a Sustainable Majority for Health Care Reform, released June 25,

11 to lead the interpretation of the lag between a recovering economy and the job gains that will likely come more slowly. Economic outlook: nationally, personally Better Worse About the same National Economy Family Finances National Economy: Past 6 months National Economy: Year from now Family Finances: One year ago Family Finances: Year from now National Public Radio, 2009 Even the percent expecting their personal finances to improve make us nervous if unemployment lags through the year. With the stimulus being re-interpreted by Republicans as ineffective spending, it is critical for the president to be re-educating the country about the ongoing recovery plan playing out over the next year: the lay-offs averted, the job-creating projects coming on-line, and the unemployment and health care benefits that are helping Americans through this crisis. Most leaders want to put the spotlight on the macro progress, but the real work is showing voters how you are working to improve their personal situation. 11

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