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Obama's Poll Numbers Don't Add Up to Whole Story

By Dan Balz
Friday, July 31, 2009

There are several new polls out over the past 24 hours that show more problems for President Obama. The trend lines are consistent: declining support for his health-care plan, rising worries about the deficit and slippage in his approval ratings. But what if the polls are wrong?

Not wrong in the sense that they have incorrectly charted a downward slope for the president after six months in office, but wrong in the sense that they don't entirely capture the dynamic of this moment in the Obama presidency.

I raise that question after spending Wednesday night in Towson observing a focus group conducted by pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Hart assembled 12 independent voters -- seven who supported Obama in November, four who backed John McCain and one who voted for Ralph Nader. The two-hour session was eye-opening for Hart and a group of journalists.

The most arresting moment came when Hart asked everyone to recall how they felt on election night. It was as if the room was transported back to Chicago's Grant Park for the celebration of Obama's victory.

Jeanne Chambers, a nurse who voted for Obama, recalled, "I was very happy because I had voted for him and I think he presented a major sense of optimism, and I think the whole country felt that way."

Other Obama voters expressed similar feelings. "My first thought was there's real hope for this country in terms of regaining our stature and straightening out the financial problems," said Louis Moriconi, a graphic designer.

The McCain voters said they, too, had been caught up in the excitement. "I pledged all my hope for him," said Jennifer Pennington, an account manager for a technical firm. "I didn't vote for him, but I was caught up in that excitement and I cried. I have friends who are African American, and I was caught up in their happiness and I just hoped he did well."

Marsha Welder, an account manager at a security firm who voted for McCain, recalled her initial disappointment that her candidate did not win but then said, "Back that night, I was thinking how proud I was of the country." She spoke glowingly of the support Obama received from younger voters. "This is how it should be," she said.

Based on the polls, what Hart and the others watching the group discussion Wednesday night had expected was that, from that high of election night, these 12 independent voters would, almost uniformly, speak of their disenchantment with Obama and their concerns about his leadership.

There was certainly some of that expressed during the evening. The strongest reservation voiced was a sense that Obama is moving too quickly on too many fronts. "Slow down," said Alex Chambers, a teacher.

But Obama has made a powerful, personal connection with these voters. They are not tired of him, nor have they given up on his leadership. Given all the country's problems and the difficulties Obama has encountered, the group's closing comments were almost as striking as the recollections of election night. They were almost universally hopeful that Obama can and will succeed.

"I still feel positive," said Tom Stranger, an accountant.

If you could tell the president one thing, Hart asked them, what would it be?

"Stay strong," said Raymond Fernandez, a movie theater manager and McCain voter.

"Don't give up. We haven't," said Scott Wood, who has been unemployed since winter.

"Keep that cup half full," Welder said. "Be optimistic."

"We do believe that things will get better," Jeanne Chambers said.

There were certainly cautionary notes for Obama from these voters, as the polls are pointing to now. These voters still aren't convinced that he is as strong as he needs to be in dealing with the world's problems. That was revealed when Hart asked them to find one word to describe what Obama's backbone is made of.

His most enthusiastic backers see strength. "Metal," said Remi Brooke, a rental agent. "Steel," said Moriconi. But almost everyone else used less complimentary terms. "Plastic," said Dave Sawyer, a forklift driver. Another said bamboo, another said wood, and still another said aluminum foil. Fernandez said "sand." Why? "He's not seasoned yet."

Asked what they hope he has learned in his first six months, Pennington said, "I hope he's learned there are a lot of implications to the money he's spending."

Jeanne Chambers said, "I think he just needs to develop a little bit of patience and stay focused. . . . I think it can be done, but it's not going to be easy."

The one counter to these recommendations to slow down came from Moriconi, who sounded frustrated by all the negotiations underway over major initiatives. "Stop trying to get consensus on everything and just move forward," he said. But that was a minority view.

"Some people just expect a lot out of this guy," said Tim Polen, a student and the youngest member of the group. He added, "I just want to stress the importance that he's just human. He's not going to do anything superhuman."

The 12 voters assembled Wednesday night cannot speak for the country. They aren't a scientific sample of the population. But they provide a valuable reminder that people often have a more nuanced impression of their leaders than suggested in the shorthand of political combat between the parties or by the raw numbers in a poll.

Obama has hit a difficult patch at six months, and no one can be certain about the outcome. But if these dozen independent voters are any guide, he has created a strong bond with the public and a fair amount of goodwill as he battles for his agenda.

Hart had spent the day digesting the results of an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll that showed warning signs for the president. But as Hart put it when the session in Towson ended: "Don't get fooled by the numbers alone because there is something that is stronger there -- and that surprised me and I thought that was important."

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