Obama's Public Opinion Dilemma

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JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 26, 2011

Obama's Public Opinion Dilemma

Pew's monster public opinion survey really captures the complexity of the political dilemma facing President Obama. You have a public extremely unhappy with everything, blaming Republicans more than Democrats, but with President Obama finding his popularity sucked down along with everybody else. He remains relatively quite popular, both compared to others and adjusted for circumstances, but absolutely pretty unpopular.

In particular, the impression that has taken shape is of a reasonable, well-intentioned man with the country's best interests at heart but not necessarily able to enact change. Here's the positive side of that:

Majorities say he stands up for what he believes in (71%), cares about people like them (63%), and most view him as a good communicator (75%), well-informed (63%) and trustworthy (59%). Public assessments of these traits are relatively unchanged in recent months.

And here's the negative side:

But evaluations of Obama’s leadership have dropped off in recent months. Today, the public is divided over whether Obama is a strong leader (49% strong leader, 47% not a strong leader), and more now say he is not able to get things done than say he is (50% not able, 44% able).

It's not as easy as you might think to shore up the liability side of that ledger without losing the asset side. Obama is viewed as well-informed, trustworthy and caring in large part because he takes such care to be reasonable. He could gain more strength, but possibly at the risk of those other attributes.

That said, he needs to make some version of this trade. The public has shifted toward the view that Obama must do more to confront Republicans. This is the most interesting finding:

People always want leaders to compromise. It's amazing that a plurality wants Obama to confront the GOP more strongly. Want to see something even more amazing? You're seeing non-trivial numbers of Republicans say that Obama should stand up to the Republicans:

The question hanging over Obama's political strategy has always been the endgame. His obsession with seeming reasonable makes sense if he uses it as an asset to spend down at the end. You do everything to show your willingness to compromise, and when the opposition refuses and refuses, finally you assail them for their fanaticism. It's harrowing to watch, because we don't know until the last minute whether we're witnessing a rope-a-dope strategy, or just a boxer being beaten to a pulp.

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posted in: jonathan chait, republican party

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