WILLIAM GALSTON JUNE 19, 2009
The latest results from three respected surveys--NBC/Wall Street Journal, New York Times/CBS, and the Pew Research Center--suggest that the Obama administration is moving into a new phase. While the president remains personally popular, doubts about key aspects of his agenda are rising. If events at home and abroad prove uncooperative, Democrats could be in trouble in next year's midterms.
Let's begin with the good news for the president. His job approval, though down five points in both the NBC/WSJ and NYT/CBS surveys, remains relatively robust, and people generally endorse his handling of the economy and foreign policy. Confidence that the country is on the right track has risen substantially since his inauguration, and more people think the economy is getting better than getting worse. Sixty percent of people feel that the condition of the country requires him to act on a broad front, while only 37 percent think that that president is taking on too many issues. And five months into the administration, 72 percent still believe that the president inherited our economic problems, versus only 14 percent who believe that his policies are mostly responsible for them.
But dark clouds are visible on the horizon. First, the people have little confidence in government as an effective instrument of public purpose. Trust in government remains near an historic low and has not improved significantly since the beginning of Obama's presidency. Only 34 percent think that government should do more to solve national problems, down seven points in the past three months. Sixty-nine percent express "a great deal" or "quite a bit" of concern about the expanding role of the federal government in areas such as automobile companies, corporate compensation, and health care.
Second, people are unsure about Obama's overall economic strategy. Only 46 percent say that they are "extremely" or "quite" confident that the president has the right set of goals and policies to improve the economy; 53 percent are not. According to Pew, approval of the president's handling of the economy has declined by eight points (from 60 to 52 percent) since mid-April.
Third, evidence is accumulating that the administration misjudged the public's reaction to increased spending and rising budget deficits, which now rank second in the list of top concerns in the NYT/CBS poll, behind only job creation and economic growth, and ahead of health care costs as an economic issue. Indeed, Pew finds that concern over spending and deficits is now the most frequently cited reservation about the administration's economic policies. Only 30 percent think the administration has developed a clear plan for dealing with the deficit; 60 percent do not.
Fourth, while there is majority support for the broad architecture of health reform that the administration espouses, doubts about specifics are multiplying. The people are evenly divided on whether the president's plan should focus more on costs (41 percent) or on coverage (43 percent). But only 18 percent think that his plan in fact gives priority to controlling costs, versus 64 percent who believe it is mostly about expanding coverage. And while majorities favor imposing "play or pay" requirements on businesses and raising taxes on Americans with incomes over $250,000 to pay for health reform, only 33 percent favor taxing people with "expensive health plans," and 70 percent say that a broader tax on employer-provided health plan is "not acceptable." The Pew survey also suggests that, relative to 1993, there is less support for radical change in the system, more support for cost containment as the top priority, and a decline in support for universal health insurance among both Republicans and independents. In light of these doubts, it is not surprising to discover that while 44 percent approve of the president's handling of health care, 34 disapprove, while 22 percent remain unsure.
Another bit of bad news involves jobs. According to NBC/WSJ, 46 percent think the economy will get better in the next year (up eight points since April), while only 22 percent think it will get worse (down eight points). But increasing confidence can be a double-edged sword if subsequent events don't bear it out. The IMF recently upgraded its view of the U.S. economy: It now predicts growth of 0.75 percent in 2010. But this rate of growth would not be nearly enough to reduce unemployment. Indeed, history of recessions over the past three decades suggests that unemployment is likely to be at least as high on Election Day next year as it is today. In the face of jobless recoveries, both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton saw their personal popularity decline during their first two years in office, and their parties experienced significant losses during the first mid-term test.
The best thing Democrats have going for them right now is the public's near-total withdrawal of confidence from the Republican Party, which now "enjoys" its lowest rating ever recorded in the NYT/CBS survey--a finding that Pew confirms. But if the deficit surges while the job market languishes, even the Republicans' collapse may not be enough to save the governing party from a painful reverse next year. Mitigating the political consequences of high unemployment will depend on the ability of Congress and the administration to bring major legislative initiatives--especially health care--to a successful conclusion that the public can accept ... and on their ability to persuade the public that something real is being done to rein in spending and debt. The signs so far are not encouraging.