Obama says Congress should pass bills that have majority support. Except Keystone XL. And things he opposes.


Andrea Byl, 22, takes an order from President Obama and Rep. Gary Peters (D-Mich.). (David Nakamura/The Washington Post)

 

In pushing the need for an increase in the minimum wage, President Obama is using perhaps his favorite rhetorical device: Reminding the American people that the vast majority of Americans agree with him.

It's a strategy he has used on a litany of issues, from background checks for gun purchases (remember all the references to "90 percent" last year?) to a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants to extending long-term unemployment insurance.

"The majority believes in raising the minimum wage," Obama said last week at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser in California. "The majority of Americans believe in equal pay for equal work. The majority of Americans want to see us invest in education and job training and apprenticeships. The majority of Americans think we should be putting people back to work rebuilding our infrastructure. A majority of Americans think that it’s the right thing to do to develop a clean-energy economy. A majority of Americans want immigration reform. So what’s the problem?”

As a political strategy, this makes complete sense. Democrats are on the right side of the polls when it comes to most of the major issues of the day -- gay marriage, comprehensive immigration reform and raising taxes on the wealthy among them -- so it's no surprise that Obama would repeatedly reinforce this fact.

But it's also overly simplistic. If you apply the same logic to some other key issues, Obama's favorite rhetorical device works against him -- in pretty stark terms. The fact is that there are a lot of things that a strong majority of Americans believe in that Obama either isn't pushing or wouldn't want to see land on his desk.

Among them:

The Keystone XL pipeline: Obama is still considering whether to approve this project -- most analysts think he won't -- but the American people have made up their mind. Basically every poll shows around two-thirds of Americans support its construction (65-22 percent in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll). Yet Obama is not heeding those polls.

The 20-week abortion ban: A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year showed Americans approved of shortening the window for abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks -- and by a margin of about two-to-one, 56 percent to 27 percent. Even 60 percent of women supported it.

A balanced budget amendment: The most recent polls on this idea, from 2011, showed Americans approved of this idea 72-20 (Fox News poll) and 61-28 (NBC/Wall Street Journal poll).

Eliminating affirmative action in college admissions: While Americans generally support some kind of affirmative action, that doesn't apply to college admissions. A June 2013 Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Americans disapproved of it 76-22 percent. The Supreme Court recently affirmed Michigan's ban on affirmative action in college admissions.

Teaching creationism in public schools: A Pew Research Center poll in 2009 showed Americans approved of teaching creationism alongside evolution by 58-35 percent.

In addition, there are a bunch of once-relevant issues that nobody is talking about today but that showed a ton of popular support when they were brought up.

Some examples:

Making English the official language: Support has long been overwhelming on this one, with a 1996 Gallup poll showing Americans backed it 82-16 percent. More recent automated polling has shown a similar level of support.

Term limits: As an issue, this is hardly topical. But when it has been polled, it has been overwhelmingly popular. A January 2013 Gallup poll showed Americans favored, 75-21 percent, some kind of term limits for members of Congress.

Nix the electoral college: The same Gallup poll showed Americans want to scrap the system used to elect presidents, by 62-29 percent.

So when will Obama start taking up the cause of making English the official language of the United States or eliminating affirmative action from college admissions? We wouldn't hold our breaths.

None of this is meant to diminish the importance of Obama having the majority of Americans on his side on many of the key issues of the day. That's a good thing for Democrats and certainly helps their cause.

But his favorite rhetorical device also has its limits -- when you bring it to its logical conclusions.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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