Sunday, January 9, 2011; 6:11 PM
The coverage of the latest wave of public-opinion polls has focused mostly on President Obama's ostensible political weaknesses. But the more important story may be the increased marginalization of his Republican opposition. Three major polls out in the past week tell the same story: Of a Republican party that is widely disliked and mistrusted -- and that is becoming essentially irrelevant. Notably, on the single most polarizing aspect (the "public option") of the biggest political issue of the moment (Obama's proposed health-care overhaul), the public overwhelmingly supports Obama's position. Republicans have essentially no power in the House. And even in the Senate, their ability to effectively block Obama is minimal without the cooperation of a handful of unreliable center-right Democrats. In fact, the only real power Republicans have left is granted to them by a media culture that consistently clamors for bipartisan solutions, even as one of the parties increasingly represents a shrunken minority of hardened extremists. Overall, public support for Obama remains very strong -- particularly considering all the unpleasantness he's having to deal with. The new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds his approval rating at 65 percent, with majority support for his handling of the economy, health care, international affairs, the threat of terrorism, the situation with Iran and global warming. His public support is slightly less than 50 percent in two areas: the budget deficit and the auto industry bailout. By contrast, the Republican Party is viewed favorably by only 36 percent of the public, down from 51 percent three years ago, and the lowest in Washington Post polling history, but for a one-time blip in late 1998 on the eve of the Republican House's impeachment of Bill Clinton. Obama leads Congressional Republicans by wide margins when asked who they trust to handle the deficit (56 to 30); health care reform (55 to 27); the economy (55 to 31); and the threat of terrorism (55 to 34). Yes, even while the poll coverage would have you believe that the deficit is Obama's big political vulnerability, it it actually the one issue the public most trusts Obama to handle -- at least when the alternative is putting Republicans in charge. The utter hypocrisy of Republicans lecturing Obama on the deficit is apparently not lost on the public. Last week's New York Times/CBS News poll found Republicans with only a 28 percent favorability rating, the lowest ever in that poll. The Wall Street Journal/NBC News found only 23 percent of the public feels either very or somewhat positive about the GOP -- down from 44 percent four years ago, and an all-time low from that poll as well. Don't forget the trend Nate Silver and others blogged about a few months ago, namely that "Republican party identification, which had already been at fairly low levels, in fact appears to have slumped further since Inauguration Day." And for good measure, Susan Page writes in USA Today that a new USA Today/Gallup Poll finds that over the past two months, "expectations for the future have brightened significantly amid rising optimism about a stock market rebound and economic turnaround." So how are the Republicans trying to stop the bleeding? Health reform is Obama's biggest legislative priority right now, and the GOP is making its big stand in opposition to a "public plan," which would allow people to purchase insurance from a government-run plan if they weren't happy with the private options. But according to the Wall Street Journal poll, 76 percent of Americans consider a public option either extremely (41 percent) or quite (35 percent) important. A recent Employee Benefit Research Institute poll found that 83 percent either strongly (53 percent) or somewhat (30 percent) support the availability of a public plan. Nevertheless, today's coverage focuses on Obama's weaknesses. "Obama Approval: Trouble Ahead?" says the headline on Gary Langer's analysis for ABC News. Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: Barely half of Americans are now confident that President Obama's $787 billion stimulus measure will boost the economy, and the rapid rise in optimism about the state of the nation that followed the 2008 election has abated, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.... The tempered public outlook has not significantly affected Obama's overall approval rating, which at 65 percent in the new survey outpaces the ratings of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at similar points in their tenures. But new questions about the stimulus package's effectiveness underscore the stakes for the Obama administration in the months ahead as it pushes for big reforms in health care and energy at the same time it attempts to revive the nation's flagging economy. With more evidence that the weakness narrative is setting in, Chris Cillizza blogs for The Washington Post that Obama's press conference today "lands at a rare weak moment for the Obama White House with a series of domestic and international challenges bearing down on him." And Michael Falcone and Andy Barr write for Politico: Eroding confidence in President Barack Obama???s handling of the economy and ability to control spending has caused his approval ratings to wilt to their lowest levels since he took office, according to a spate of recent polls, a sign of political weakness that comes just as he most needs leverage on Capitol Hill. Jamison Foser of Media Matters offers some perspective: It's generally accepted that the news media obsess over horse-race political coverage at the expense of serious examinations of important issues. Media critics on the left, right, and in the middle tend to agree that there is too much focus on polling and not enough on policy, while many reporters seem proud of their focus on the game rather than the stakes. (Politico is, after all, called "Politico," not "Policy-o," and features blogs "on Politics," "on Hill intrigue," "on Gossip," and "on Campaigns" -- but not "on Policy." ABC News' senior White House correspondent calls his blog "Political Punch." And so on.) But, he explains: The media's obsessive focus on politics does not, however, mean their political assessments are of a high quality.... Calling the media's coverage of politics and policy "horse-race journalism" is an insult to horse-race journalism -- the Daily Racing Form isn't in the habit of advising readers to bet on the filly with the broken leg. And Julian E. Zelizer, writing in a CNN commentary, quite accurately points out that Obama's real political vulnerability "is the tension between the left and center of the Democratic Party."