Monday, July 20 at 1 p.m. ET

Post Politics: Obama Losing Support on Key Issues, Poll Shows

Jon Cohen
Washington Post Polling Director
Monday, July 20, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post polling director Jon Cohen was online Monday, July 20 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the latest Post-ABC poll, which found a decline in confidence in President Obama's plans for health-care and the economy.


Jon Cohen: Good afternoon. Welcome to "pollchat," and thanks for your questions.


Saint Paul, Minn.: Hi Jon -- Thanks for taking questions today. As someone who voted for the president and want him to succeed, today's poll results are a little disconcerting. Are voters' reactions the result of him promising too much too soon? In other words, how does he deal with the high expectations he has set?

Jon Cohen: One thing to keep in mind is that approval ratings at the six-month mark are not necessarily indicative of what's in store for presidents. As Gary Langer pointed out in ABC's telling of this poll, Obama's ratings at this stage are on par with those for Carter, Reagan, George W. Bush and ... Nixon, so the we'll have to wait and see what happens as Obama continues to push his agenda.

On the overreach question: there's little evident pushback against Obama's early action on the economy, health care and the deficit. Majorities in the new poll say he's putting the right emphasis or should do more still in each of these key areas.

In terms of expectations, most, 62 percent, say he's delivered on a central pledge ... that "he has brought needed change to Washington."

All that said, growing disapproval of how he's handling some issues, including health care, certainly add to the pressure.


Do you call cell phones?: Just wondering, since the assumption is that poll respondents are going to be people who are at home and have land other words, they would skew older and lower-income...which would make these results even more alarming for those who thought the whole country was backing these plans.

Jon Cohen: Yes, we interview on cellphones. we experimented with adding a supplemental cell sample to our polls last year, and incorporated them in our election tracking. And this year we've added them into our SOP for national polls, interviewing both those on traditional landlines and those who've abandoned that service and gone "cell-only."


Dunn Loring, Va.: One of the poll's questions asks who is to blame for the economic troubles, Obama or Bush (for lack of financial regulation)? Since a significant cause of the economic downturn can be traced to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, why wasn't a question included asking if blame should be placed on Congress for its lack of oversight of these institutions?

Jon Cohen: Questionnaire real estate is a scarce resource. Here, we wanted to know the public's view of Obama vs. Bush on this score. In March we asked a longer list (below); banks and large business corps came out "on top." Will look into asking Congress next-go-round. Thanks.

How much blame do you think [ITEM] deserve(s) for the country's economic situation - a great

deal, a good amount, only some or hardly any?

a. Banks and other financial institutions, for taking unnecessary risks

b. The Bush administration, for inadequate regulation of the financial industry

c. Large business corporations, for poor management decisions

d. Consumers, for taking on too much debt

e. The Obama administration, for not doing enough to turn the economy around


Atlanta: It seems like President Obama hasn't been very visible during the health care debate over the past few weeks. Do you think once he starts taking the lead on the conversation and the people hear directly from him, the momemtum whill change? As for the economy, there seems to be a lot of positive signs in the past few days. To what extent are the poll numbers outdated given the less pessimistic outlook?

Jon Cohen: Good questions. On your second one: public opinion does react to "facts on the ground," so as the economy (or sometimes news about the economy) changes, views can change as well. We'll be sure to check back in over the coming months.

Obama has a deep well of support to draw upon, and he maintains the clear upper hand over the Republicans in Congress on key issues, which is probably one reason he's taking your (implicit) advice and hitting the road to prop on health care reform. It'll be interesting to see if he's able to use "going public" (with the bully pulpit) to boost the prospects for quick legislation. We'll also be watching how his own ratings hold up in the process.


Akron, Ohio: Why did your article not mention that GW Bush had a low approval rating in July of 2001, and yet no call was being made as to the detrimental nature of his presidency, like is being done for President Obama?

Jon Cohen: In our polling, GWB was at almost the same point in '01 as Obama is today, and the two were also similarly rated by political independents.

Obama's held up at about average for post-war presidents at this stage.

The slip in ratings we highlighted today show the great (growing) challenge he faces, not "the detrimental nature of his presidency."


Kettering, Ohio: Hi Jon, thanks for taking questions. My question is more nuts n' bolts. Recently the NYT did a poll that had a huge majority saying they supported Obama's health care plan, but then disclosed that 75% of the respondents were Obama supporters. Have you had happenstances when you have polled a question or issue and had to can it because the underlying numbers created a less than credible result?

Jon Cohen: I've never spiked a question, or an answer. We release the results for every question we ask, and our complete, ordered questionnaires so you can judge our work. On the Times (and CBS) question you highlight, Sarah Dutton, CBS's director of surveys has the answer:


Richmond, Va.: Is part of the problem the Obama administration may be having is that they had a target in two parts. The first part was the change, while the second part was in a certain time period. All the people heard (we hear what we want to hear) was the change part and they sort of blocked out the time period part and just want change now.

Jon Cohen: Perhaps so. Patience is hard to teach, or learn.


New York City: Is it difficult to continue to put a negative frame on polls that show, among other findings, almost 70 percent of Americans support Obama's specific health-care proposals?

Jon Cohen: hello NYC, not sure what "specific" plans you're talking about, but some elements are clearly popular, others much less so. In the new poll, we tested a "package" similar to the one the House put together last week, and got 54 percent support, with about equal numbers of strong supporters and opponents.


Bethesda, Md.: I didn't vote for Barack Obama, yet I feel sorry for this President because he really inherited this problem. That said, fear is a factor in getting people motivated. What people fear is that the quality (key word) is going to go down in this country regarding health care. We hear the stories about even people from Canada coming to the U.S. because of our quality. I think he either has to allay those fears, or move a little to the right and modify his proposal.

Jon Cohen: Good point ... there's no question that there's widespread public apprehension about changing the health care system, and that serves as a brake on reform efforts.

In our June poll, majorities were "very concerned" changes to the system would reduce the quality of care they receive, reduce their insurance coverage (if insured), increase their costs, increase government bureaucracy, limit their choices of doctors or treatments and sharply increase the federal deficit.

Needless to say: that's quite a lot to contend with.


NYC: It's my understanding no credible national poll has found less than 60% support for the individual compmonents of the Obama proposals, and the 54% you obtained was for the package in aggregate. Correct?

Jon Cohen: take the individual mandate part ... asked straight "Would you support or oppose a law that requires all Americans to have health insurance, either getting it from work or buying it on their own?" our June poll found a evenly divided public, 49 percent support, 47 percent oppose.

Those numbers moved up or down with caveats, but it's a far cry from clear majority approval.


Indianapolis: I'd be interested in seeing any poll that asked the public if they believe their media sources (of choice) provide more information about policy or politics.

Jon Cohen: Not sure if they've asked such questions recently, but one excellent source for this is the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism,


Atlanta: Let's get real here.

The American people in particular, and people in general, want everything, they want it now, and they don't want to pay for it.

I think perhaps the reality of all the borrowing that obama is doing is setting in (or not, seriously).

Obama - or anyone, for that matter - can't do everything. We do not have the money to pay for everything - even if you taxed everyone 100 percent.

It is okay to be unpopular, really. In fact, good leaders are, at some point (the reality being the obama isn't really unpopular).

(As to the "I voted for Obama and I want him to succeed" comment. I didn't vote for obama, and I would like him to succeed to - to say otherwise would be ridiculous. I don't want him to succeed in making us more dependent on government, but I would like to see this country prosper and do well).

Jon Cohen: Thanks for the comments. What do others think?


New Hampshire: Have you tried polling on the fairness question in health care, i.e., if people know that some people are simply locked out of the insurance purchasing option, either because they're self-employed or have pre-existing conditions, are respondents still most concerned with cost?

Jon Cohen: I haven't seen anything on these exact fairness points. After this I'll take a look for the answer at the Kaiser Family Foundation's excellent health polling resource. Here's the link if you'd like to as well:


Princeton, NJ: The question about "satisfaction" of health care is a tricky. If you just ask about health care people may be referring to their doctor, not their insurance. Even if you specifically ask about insurance, you restrict to those with private insurance, you eliminate the two groups (very young and very old) who use health care the most.

How about:

How satisfied are you with your health insurance:

a) completely satisfied b) satisfied, but I worry if it will be enough if I get really sick. c) not satisfied at all.

Jon Cohen: B


New York City: So, "tax-and-spend Democrat" is not spiked?

Jon Cohen: Explain?


Laurel: A lot of the economic data coming out now is being contrasted with (e.g. "highest unemployment since...") the 1980-82 recession. At that time, the White House also changed parties and enacted numerous economic measures. How does President Obama's approval pattern compare to Ronald Reagan's over the first six months?

Jon Cohen: As noted earlier, Obama is now at around where Reagan was at the six-month-mark ... 59 percent approve of Obama now, 57 did of Reagan then. As the economy continued to tank in Reagan's first term, his ratings sagged in tandem, hitting a low of 42 percent at the end of year two. If you have a crystal ball on the economy, you'll also have a good gauge on presidential approval. Also, I'd like you to pick stocks for me.


Silver Spring, Md.: "take the individual mandate part..." My dilema on a poll question like this is, that while I support the idea of an individual mandate, I do not believe that the Constitution (as currently written) gives the federal government the authority to establish such a mandate. Therefore, I'd have to say I'd be against such legislation, even though I'd support the idea if it was constitutional.

Jon Cohen: Appreciate the feedback.


Arlington, Va.: Did you ask any questions related to people's expectations? i.e. do you think it is realistic to expect Obama to have fixed the economy in 6 months? It seems ludicrous to me that people expect things to be changed overnight as if by flip of the switch. Have we become a nation of imbeciles with no attention span or the ability to see beyond instant gratification?

Jon Cohen: Closest we get in this poll is when we asked about people's confidence Obama's economic programs will boost the economy: 56 percent said they were "very" or "somewhat" confident. That's still a sizable majority, but one that's down from 64 percent in March and 72 percent just before the inauguration.


Jon Cohen: Thanks very much for joining today. Apologies for not getting to all your good questions. Until next time ...


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