Curious Polling and Obama’s Worrisome Popularity

Two newspapers have flagged some concerns about Barack Obama’s popularity, citing a new poll to raise questions about the public’s enthusiasm for White House policies so far. Both accounts, though, seem to try to hard to stretch the rather awkward poll results to match their arguments.

In the Los Angeles Times (5/3/09), Peter Nicholas noted that while the public still supports Obama, “the activist government Obama has unleashed is increasingly worrisome to voters, polls show.”

He explained:

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 47 percent of those surveyed believe “government should do more,” compared with 46 percent who believe “government is doing too many things.” In July, the gap between those who wanted government to do more and those who believed it was doing too much was 11 percentage points.

So there is now a 47-46 split on whether government should “do more” or whether it is “doing too many things.” Those are rather vague categories, but the point is that we can see an 11 point shift from February. It’s worth noting that the new numbers are about the same as last October, which might suggest that it’s hard to put too much weight on one poll question. And this question was only asked of half the sample this time around (which raised the margin of error from 3.1 to 4.4 percentage points).

Today, New York Times reporter John Harwood tried to make a similar point, noting that while Obama is still popular (judging by the “is the country on the right track” polling):

Paradoxically, however, that success may complicate Mr. Obama’s task going forward by easing the sense of crisis. And that, in turn, could help Republicans argue that he seeks an excessively costly expansion of government’s role.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in February showed that 51 percent of Americans wanted government to do more to solve problems, compared with 40 percent who said government was “doing too many things.” Last week, the same survey showed an even split; a 52 percent majority said Mr. Obama had taken on “too many other issues” besides the economy.

Harwood is actually comparing the results of different poll questions. That latter question about doing too much outside economic policy is what he’s trying to emphasize, but one look at the wording of that question might give you pause:

“Looking at President Obama’s first 100 days, do you feel that he and his administration have had a clear and sharp focus on the economy, or do you feel that President Obama and his administration have been trying to take on too many other issues at the same time?”

The loaded language–has the White House been “clear and sharp”– seems designed to get a negative response. And it echoes one of the favorite complaints of the Beltway press corps of late–that Obama is trying to do too many things at once. Now they’ve got a poll to match their anxiety.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.