Polls give Obama heartburn, headaches and hope

By J Brooks Spector 17 October 2011

Despite a sense that America’s national mood is one of pessimism about national drift – or worse – the most recent polls indicate Barack Obama remains ahead of his potential Republican rivals. While this is still early days, the Republican primaries and caucuses have yet had their first votes cast – regardless, new polls together with some recent speeches give insights about how the national campaign will be fought, and where Obama will try to open the gap further between himself and his erstwhile Republican challengers. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Comparing the role of Obama and Republican leadership in Congress, recent data from the Pew Research Center indicates:

“The public’s confidence in congressional leaders, particularly Republican leaders in Congress, has plummeted. Just 35% say they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in Republican leaders in Congress to do the right thing when it comes to dealing with the federal budget deficit, down from 47% in May. Fully 62% say they have little or no confidence in the Republican leaders on this issue.

Public confidence in Barack Obama on the budget deficit, by comparison, has remained largely unchanged. The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 22-25 among 1,000 adults finds that 52% express at least a fair amount of confidence in Obama to do the right thing when it comes to dealing with the deficit, virtually unchanged from 55% earlier in the year.”

Concurrently, according to the newest Time magazine poll this past week, in specific test heats, Obama leads Mitt Romney by a 46% to 43% gap. Obama trumps Texas Governor Rick Perry by 50% to 38% and holds a similar margin over Herman Cain – 49% to 37% – despite Cain’s rise among likely Republican primary voters in the past few weeks.

One key reason for Obama’s leading position remains his popularity among women – differential female support has been at the heart of Democratic Party wins for at least the past generation. There is now an eight-point spread female support for Obama over Romney that grows to 17 points over Perry and then to 21% in a match-up with Herman Cain.

These results are in spite of the fact only 44% of voters approve of Obama’s performance, but down just four points since June. And while 80% say the country is off-track and 71% say the nation’s strength in the world is slipping, the president’s perceived personal qualities continue to cushion citizen frustration with the state of the country’s economy – half those surveyed say Obama is tough enough to lead the country through its current travails and 59% say he is personally empathetic to “the concerns of Americans like themselves”. Not particularly surprisingly, though, a 48% – 37% split says Obama is a better president than his monumentally bad predecessor was.

This kind of polling data comes despite Democratic defeats in congressional votes on a range of issues as well as their “shellacking” in 2010 and in several special elections subsequently. Nonetheless, per the data, 42% still say they repose greater trust in the Democratic Party to deal with the nation’s problems than with their opponents at 31%. Most importantly, two-thirds say they would choose the Democrats’ approach for cutting the federal deficit — both spending cuts and tax hikes — by contrast to the Republican plans solely to cut spending. Complicating things somewhat, voters also say they prefer spending reductions to new stimulus packages as the way to energise the limp economy (even though further stimulus spending gets the thumbs up from many economists).

In contrast to a general presumption about the popularity of the Tea Party as a make or break force in American political life, 54% of respondents said they had a positive impression of the new “Occupy Wall Street” movement – with only 23% giving a negative view. And their reaction towards the Tea Party movement was essentially the reverse – only 27% offered favourable views and 65% (!) said its impact on US politics was either negative or negligible. Nonetheless, these results speak to a thread of economic populism (as opposed to support for sharp cuts in corporate and wealth taxes in accord with Republican positions) in the minds of voters – almost 80% said the wealth gap in the US has grown too large and that over two-thirds agreed the rich should pay more in taxes.

All of this may be oxygen for Obama re-election strategists who would like to wage – and to a degree already are waging – his 2012 campaign aggressively on economic turf, rather than on values issues or promises of a new kind of political alignment. This would seem to mean more “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” and that “do-nothing Congress” and wedge issues along economic grounds – and a lot less “Yes we can” and “Change you can believe in” this time around. The Republicans meanwhile, having already set the ground rules for this campaign on economic terms in their fight over the budget and the debt ceiling vote, now stand to get hit with something of that “class warfare” approach they have been warning about.

Meanwhile, in another recent survey, Republicans leaning towards Tea Party-style values expressed strong support for tough foreign policy stances and a hard line against illegal immigration, according to the Pew Research Center. Such voters support more defense expenditures even though 55% concurrently want the US to draw back from overseas military commitments to reduce the budget deficit and the size of the nation’s debt. By contrast, 74% of Democratic Party supporters favour cuts in military commitments to reduce the national debt.

An overwhelming 79% of Tea Party supporters sympathised strongly with Israel’s current positions, in contrast to 54% of non-Tea Party Republicans and only 41% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. This carries through to feelings about Palestinian positions: 68% of Tea Party Republicans argued Obama favors the Palestinians too much, compared with only 23% of non-Tea Party Republicans and 8% of Democrats. These figures help bolster the understanding that support for Israel (and opposition to Palestinian views) lines up much more solidly from right wing Republicans and Christian fundamentalists than it does now from traditional Jewish-American support for Israel (and the Democrats).

Additionally, 37% of the public as a whole was supportive of the developments of the “Arab Spring” and the possibilities of increased democratic behaviour even at the risk of political stability, although 52% came down in favour of stability as the key goal. Specifically, Tea Party Republicans at 56% and non-Tea Party Republicans at 61% said stable governments were the most important outcome.

Meanwhile, Tea Party Republicans sought the hardest line against China in economic policy, with two-thirds saying it is more important to get tougher with China on economic issues and with under a third advocating building stronger ties with China. Non-Tea Party Republicans clocked in at just over 40% and only 32% of Democrats believed policy priorities should mean getting tougher with China.

While nearly half of Democrats and non-Tea Party Republicans (46%) said better border security and finding a way for people here illegally to sort out their status should be given equal priority, 98% of Tea Party supporters favor stronger enforcement of immigration laws, period.

Following Obama’s announcement about American withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Pew Research Center and The Washington Post had also conducted a survey about attitudes towards the pace of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Here the result was that “a plurality of Americans (44%) said Obama was handling the withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan about right, while 29% said he was not removing them quickly enough, and 14% thought he was removing them too quickly.” Other surveys have previously noted up-ticks in support for Obama on international security efforts after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and Anwar al-Awlaki and Yemen. Taken together, these reinforce the notion that Republicans will have difficulty in gaining support beyond their base from increased criticism of Obama’s foreign policy and thus economic issues will be the key electoral battle terrain.

While this seems virtually self-evident, it remains unclear what type of criticism Republicans can advocate that will expand their base of support – without degrading support of those already in their corner. Mitt Romney’s economic policies and those of Rick Perry (or Herman Cain’s for that matter) represent divergent positions that will not meld together easily. And so, in the months ahead, watch how this shakes out among the Republicans, even as Obama’s forces sharpen and refine their own economic message.

But, as we have been saying all along, above everything else, watch the numbers of new unemployment benefit claims and the total of those already unemployed. Come this time next year, if unemployment remains stubbornly above 9%, a prudent Barack Obama family may want to look into new schools in Chicago. DM

Read more:

  • Obama Leads Head-to-Head Matchups with Republican Rivals in Time;
  • and the full results of this survey;
  • Strong on Defense and Israel, Tough on China: Tea Party and Foreign Policy from the Pew Research Center;
  • Obama Draws More Confidence than GOP Leaders on Deficit from Pew;
  • Research Center for the People and the Press, an important part of the Pew website.



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