Gwen’s Take: The Sincerity Test

BY Gwen Ifill  December 17, 2010 at 4:12 PM EST

Polls can be confusing. Americans generally hate Congress but don’t mind their own congressman. And many of them say they hate President Obama but consider him a good father and a generally likable fellow.

What gives?

I did a deep dive into two new polls out this week to see if I could figure it out. As I was scouring the graphs and tables, I came across a question I’d never noticed before.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, voters were asked whether they believe the president and congressional Republicans are “sincere” when they say they want to reduce the federal deficit.

Think about that. They were not asked whether they agree with their leaders, or even whether they trust their motivations. The question basically was: Do you think they believe what they say?

The results are intriguing: 64 percent say Mr. Obama is sincere, 51 percent say the Republicans are. This helps to explain other poll results that show voters trust Democrats more than Republicans to fix a range of domestic issues.

But take a peek at the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll also released this week. A whopping 64 percent are only “somewhat” or “not at all” confident that the president — overall — is pursuing “the right set of goals and policies.”

That gives both sides room to run on all manner of issues. So when President Obama delivered a carefully calibrated silver lining update on the mission in Afghanistan, he had to know he was counting on this generosity of public opinion.

“Progress comes slowly and at a very high price in the lives of our men and women in uniform,” he said. “In many places, the gains we’ve made are still fragile and reversible. But there is no question we are clearing more areas from Taliban control and more Afghans are reclaiming their communities.”

This may be what Americans want to hear. But any room to run offers but a narrow path. Only 34 percent of those responding to the Washington Post/ABC News poll agree that the war has been worth fighting.

Still, according to another poll, this one conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, most Americans still support the President’s plan to keep troops in Afghanistan until 2014.

But once again, this is no overwhelming endorsement. The margin of support is only 53 percent to 45 percent. And those numbers flip among members of the president’s own party – with 53 percent of Democrats opposing the plan, and 46 percent supporting it.

Americans can be forgiven for being of mixed minds about the big issues facing the nation right now. If you are pessimistic about the economy (as most are) and know someone who is unemployed or otherwise affected by the recession (as many do), you can be forgiven for thinking that tax cuts and unemployment benefits will help.

Yet if the state of the economy makes you more likely to worry about your retirement security, cutting Social Security payroll taxes does not seem like such a good idea even if you think deficit spending is a bad idea. A majority – 56 percent – says efforts to cut the deficit should begin right away, according to the Washington Post/ABC News poll.

It’s a confusing political landscape, and as members of Congress try out new navigational tools – mostly delaying action by giving long speeches – they can only hope that Americans continue to give them the benefit of believing in their sincerity.

The answers reminded me that Americans are a pretty practical lot. They are not as polarized or as judgmental as the people they elect. So as Congress looks for a way to negotiate a lame-duck session tightrope, know that they are confused too.