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Polls Signal Support for Obama, Concerns on Economy

February 24, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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New polls reveal continued public approval of President Barack Obama and a range of concerns on the economy. Two political reporters discuss what the public is thinking -- and why -- one month into the Obama presidency.
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GWEN IFILL: Three new national polls out today show President Obama with a significant cushion of public support as he prepares to address Congress and the nation tonight. Surveys conducted over the weekend by USA Today-Gallup, the Washington Post and ABC News, and the New York Times and CBS News show 62 percent to 68 percent of those polled approve of the new president; 77 percent say they are generally optimistic about the next four years; 64 percent favor giving government aid to homeowners facing foreclosure; and 73 percent say Obama is trying to compromise with congressional Republicans, while only 34 percent see Republicans as striving for compromise.

For more on what the public is thinking and why just over a month into the Obama presidency, we turn to Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today, and Amy Walter, editor-in-chief for the Hotline, National Journal’s political daily.

Welcome to you both.

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: Thank you.

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: Thank you, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL: How do these numbers, Susan, compare to what we have seen for past first-term presidents one month out?

SUSAN PAGE: You know, they’re almost — President Obama is almost exactly where his previous — his predecessors have been at about this point. And about a month in, presidents are beginning to lose a little bit of that inaugural glow. They’re usually right there in that — in that 60 percent, near that 60 percent line.

In some ways, this is impressive for President Obama, because he comes in at a very difficult time and he’s tried to do a lot in this first month. So in some ways, that may have drawn some lines that would have driven approval ratings down for other presidents. But right now, he’s right in the middle.

GWEN IFILL: So when the White House looks at numbers like this, Amy, do they translate it as, “This gives me room to run”?

AMY WALTER: Well, I think they’re going to look at two things. The first thing is — and I agree with Susan — it’s one thing to come in a month into your presidency and then say, “Well, I have approval ratings up in the mid- to high 60s.” It’s another thing to say, “Oh, and, P.S., I’ve already gone through major legislative battles.”

Most presidents a month in are still trying to find the bathrooms or figure out where their staff is. So I think that’s significant.

The other thing that I am looking at, too, is it’s not just how popular the president is, but it’s how unpopular Republicans are. And so when you look at across the board, it’s not the Republican Party, but it’s Republicans in Congress. Democrats have an overall positive approval rating from voters; Republicans have a negative view for voters.

Republicans navigate carefully

Amy Walter
The Hotline
One Republican said to me, you know, it's a lot easier to vote against a popular program that turns out -- you know, something that turns out to be popular than voting for something that turns out to be unpopular.

GWEN IFILL: So if you were a Republican and you are a member of what you consider to be the principled opposition, how do you take on someone who seems this invincible, at least at this early stage?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I tell you what we've seen congressional Republicans do, and that is decide to be the opposition. They have decided that Barack Obama and the congressional Democrats will own this economic recovery package, that if it works the Republicans will be sorry that they almost entirely to a person opposed it, but if it doesn't work, that gives them some ground to say, "I told you so. We spent too much. We spent it on the wrong things. We should have taken a different path."

GWEN IFILL: But the numbers between -- and maybe it's just that one is an institution, one is an individual. When you ask the people about Congress, they are so unpopular as compared to the president.

AMY WALTER: That's right. Well, I think that Republicans are counting on two things. One, even if the economy does do well a year out or two years out, most people don't remember that you voted against something when they're feeling positive about the direction of the country or the economy.

It's easier -- one Republican said to me, you know, it's a lot easier to vote against a popular program that turns out -- you know, something that turns out to be popular than voting for something that turns out to be unpopular. So that's one thing that they're hoping for.

You know, the second thing is, you look at how quickly -- and I think they're using the Clinton years as their blueprint, as well. President Clinton coming in his first year had similar numbers, not just approval ratings, but the gap between people who said, "I think that the president versus congressional Republicans will do a better job on solving the nation's troubles." The gap is almost identical to what it is between Obama and Republicans today. You fast-forward one year later...

Reaction to housing plan complex

Susan Page
USA Today
When you ask about the housing plan, most Americans said it was necessary to spend this big amount of money, $75 billion, to help homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure, but a majority also felt that it wasn't fair, necessary, but unfair.

GWEN IFILL: And yet the health care plan had fallen apart. OK, so there are warning signals in this. And one of them is that 51 percent -- I think the number is -- of taxpayers -- of respondents said they felt that it may be unfair for taxpayers to shoulder the burden, especially of this housing bailout.

SUSAN PAGE: You know, it's interesting. When you ask about the housing plan, most Americans said it was necessary to spend this big amount of money, $75 billion, to help homeowners who are at risk of foreclosure, but a majority also felt that it wasn't fair, necessary, but unfair.

And that sums up some of the attitudes you see. I mean, a lot of Americans feel like this is something we have to do because we're all going to sink together otherwise, but they don't like the idea of their tax dollars going to bail out neighbors who made bad decisions, who bought houses that were too expensive for them to afford.

GWEN IFILL: It's funny that you talk about necessary but unfair, because one of the other conflicts, kind of dichotomies in these polls shows that people believe, for instance, that -- we saw the president come out yesterday and talk about the deficit on the same day he was talking about spending. So he's talking about deficits and fiscal responsibility. Is that also a correct reading of what the concerns are of the public?

AMY WALTER: It's a necessary evil. Look, I'm sorry we have to do this, but if we're going to save this economy now, we're going to have to run this deficit up. But that doesn't mean that we can get away with just, you know, spending money that we don't have on superfluous programs. We need to spend it on the stuff that really matters.

But what I think is also interesting to look at is, at what point do voters start to -- and this is what Republicans are also questioning -- at what point to Republicans stop seeing this as the Bush economy and start seeing this as the Obama economy? And it's clear right now that this is still the Bush economy; these are still Bush Republicans in Congress.

At some point, right now, they're saying, look, we think this recession is going to last for a long time. We don't think it's going to be over in two years. Maybe it's going to be more than two years. They don't even think -- the numbers -- only 19 percent think that the stimulus bill is going to shorten the recession, so they don't think this is a silver bullet today. But are those expectations going to be different a year from now if things are still looking bad?

Nervous public supporting Obama

Amy Walter
The Hotline
I mean, I think this was a really important campaign, in that, yes, he campaigned in many ways against the last eight years, but mostly he campaigned for something, which was change and hope, and that that still transcends.

GWEN IFILL: Well, here's another test, the banking rescue plan, where people say -- if they're asked about whether they favor nationalization, they say, "No, that sounds vaguely communist." But if they're asked whether a partial takeover is necessary, they sound like that might be a better idea.

SUSAN PAGE: You know, we divided our sample into two halves. And half of them, we said, "What about temporary nationalization of banks?" Fifty-seven percent oppose the idea. We said -- to the other half, we asked, "What about a temporary government takeover of banks?" Which, of course, is what nationalization is. Fifty-four percent supported that idea.

It's another example of how words really matter. And nationalization sounds pretty scary to people. But a takeover, a temporary takeover of banks that are struggling is something that sounds like it might make good sense and, in fact, it's something that a lot of economists think may be coming.

GWEN IFILL: We saw today a new record low in consumer confidence. People are clearly nervous. How does it work that people are so shaky and so nervous about this economy, yet so upbeat and positive about this presidency?

AMY WALTER: I think that his hope and change mantra -- I mean, I think this was a really important campaign, in that, yes, he campaigned in many ways against the last eight years, but mostly he campaigned for something, which was change and hope, and that that still transcends, I think, even this bad economy and the pessimism people feel.

At the same time, you're going to be listening to a lot of folks tonight looking for, in his speech, signs of that optimism. You heard President Clinton saying the other day, I really think that, you know, that President Obama needs to sound more optimistic. You know, it's style and words that make a difference.

At the same time, when voters see real bad things happening, there's not much you can say that's going to change their feelings of things.

Balancing reality with optimism

Susan Page
USA Today
But, you know, the bottom line is at some point he'll have to deliver. Good feelings toward Barack Obama will not persist unless the point comes where the economy starts to look better and people feel that in their daily lives.

GWEN IFILL: Is that happening? Are people saying they want him to be more cheery and talk more upbeat about this economy?

SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think the commentators are saying he needs to show some hope. I think there is a sense that people are really nervous. People understand in their own lives how many people are losing their jobs and losing their homes and how -- how imperiled people feel.

But they need to have a sense -- and I think this is Obama's great task tonight -- a sense that there is a plan that knits together in a coherent way, that provides a path ahead, that eventually will lead to better times.

Now, at the moment Americans are pretty patient. They're pretty pragmatic. We found that 3 of 4 Americans say it will take two years or more for the economy to be recovered. That gives them some running room.

But, you know, the bottom line is at some point he'll have to deliver. Good feelings toward Barack Obama will not persist unless the point comes where the economy starts to look better and people feel that in their daily lives.

GWEN IFILL: One last, quick question. Is there support among the public for him to bite off so much, to do all the things he says he can do at the same time?

AMY WALTER: Well, there doesn't seem to be anybody saying right now he's doing a bad job of it. All we can do is look at, do people think he's doing a good job as president? Yes. Do they think he's doing a good job with the economy? Yes.

I think that, at some point -- and Susan made this great analogy -- that it comes together cohesively, that it doesn't look like they're just running from one, you know, emergency to the next, but that there's actually something going on that ultimately has an end goal that works for voters.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter of the Hotline, Susan Page of the USA Today, thank you.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.

AMY WALTER: Thank you.