Obama Involvement in Gates Flap Hurt Image, Poll Finds

By Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

Did President Obama accelerate his public image problems by venturing into the racial politics swirling around the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.?

The intriguing possibility comes from a Pew Research Center analysis released Thursday: The poll finds that Obama's overall approval rating among whites tumbled seven percentage points from just after his July 22 news conference through last weekend, as the focus turned increasingly to his handling of the situation. The percentage of whites who "like" the kind of person he is fell by six points.

In a callback survey Monday evening, more than twice as many whites disapproved than approved of how Obama was dealing with the matter (45 percent disapproved, 22 approved and 33 percent said they did not know).

Many things were shifting in Washington at the tail-end of last week, when Pew was interviewing for this poll, but the new numbers are stark, as the Gates story took up nearly a third of all news coverage by last Friday, according to a separate analysis by Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

On health care, the dominant issue of his news conference, Obama slipped five points among whites from Wednesday and Thursday to Friday and the weekend. On other specific issues, the changes were smaller or nonexistent.

Another caveat is that Obama's slippage in the polls predates the brouhaha over the Gates incident, with Obama on a downward trajectory for the month.

Get more analysis of political polls, surveys and voting data at the Behind the Numbers blog, at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/behind-the-numbers

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