Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

What Do Poll Numbers Really Mean for Obama?

President Obama steps off Marine One as he arrives on the South Lawn at the White House in Washington, July 29, 2009.(Jim Young/Reuters)

By Dan Balz
There are several new polls out over the last 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, Md., 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 last November, four who backed John McCain and one who had 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 when they knew Obama had been elected president. 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 around the table 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 over Obama's election. "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 had gotten from younger voters. "This is how it should be," she said.

Based on the polls, what Hart and the others watching the group discussion on Wednesday night anticipated 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 most powerful reservation voiced by those at the table 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. That was very clear at the end of the two-hour discussion.

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 last 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 persuaded 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, 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.

Stranger said, "I hope he has learned that everything does not work at the speed of light."

Jeanne Chambers said, "I think he just needs to develop a little bit of patience and stay focused and like he says try to keep moving forward. 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.

Though hopeful, these voters did not predict a steady rise in the country's fortunes under Obama. They know the problems the country faces are severe. Asked to chart the next two years, most picked a course of ups and downs, good days and bad, rather than something more optimistic.

Tim Polen, a student and the youngest member of the group, said what Obama needs is for people to see him as he is. "Some people just expect a lot out of this guy," he said. "I know he's a smart guy but he's in a tough spot, and it's going to be tough for anybody. I just want to stress the importance that he's just human. He's not going to do anything super human. This is a group effort."

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

Obama at six months has hit a difficult patch 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 good will 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."

For more on Obama and the polls, read Poll Results Drive Rhetoric of Obama's Health-Care Message.

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 30, 2009; 12:17 PM ET
Categories:  B_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Demonstrators Want Lemonade at Obama Beer Summit
Next: Weighing In on the White House 'Beer Summit'


"My criticisms of Obama are not about money, they are about humanity. He is as bad a warmonger as Bush"
I must disagree with you. If he were to leave Iraq too hastily, there would be much more killing than taking a measured responsible approach, this is what he promised during his campaign.

Regarding Afghanistan, whether we like it or not, there is a real threat coming from that region, that is where the real war on terror should have been focussed. It's not like the Taliban are nice guys over there, the public hates the Taliban, they kill people in the streets for smoking, stone women to death for leaving their homes unescorted by a man. They are also plotting attacks on America. Obama also promised he would finish that war during his campaign. If you didn't like his promises then you should not have voted for him.

Posted by: JRM2 | August 3, 2009 7:49 PM | Report abuse

I think if you look at Obama's decline in poll numbers and the Republican decline in poll numbers you'll see that the Republicans are falling faster.

Maybe opens the door for an independent.

Posted by: JRM2 | August 3, 2009 7:41 PM | Report abuse

@WashingtonDame : I wanted Bush to succeed, unfortunately, he failed miserably, and not due to Democratic obstruction.

Posted by: JRM2 | August 3, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

Very sensible column, Dan. The Republicans love to exaggerate people's disaffection with Obama. That is natural, but their spin does not equal reality. Glenn Beck wants Obama to fail. The American People want him to succeed. We still have hope for him. The Republicans should be ashamed of their hypocritical and unpatriotic approach. They do not have the best interests of the country at heart.

Posted by: novgorodva | July 30, 2009 9:35 PM

And I'm sure you wanted Bush succeed while he was President because YOU had the best interests of the country at heart, too.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 30, 2009 10:36 PM | Report abuse

Had the president not moved "quickly" on all fronts people would be critical, too. Clearly, the president understands urgency: the convolution of national and international exigencies cannot be forestalled. The president's actions speak louder than words. To believe there will be measurable success in every endeavor after 6 months in office defies common sense. Indeed pragmatism dictates that many methods must be explored and applied prior to assessment of short-term, let alone long-term, success. To begin to effect any efficacious solution, systemic stabilization of each complex critical mass has to be examined and defined before it can be prioritized. Without deconstruction, we can not implement, let alone guarantee, mitigating policies that will result in substantive gains. The president realizes that time is of the essence and that he who hesitates is lost.

Posted by: boredwell | July 30, 2009 10:13 PM | Report abuse

Very sensible column, Dan. The Republicans love to exaggerate people's disaffection with Obama. That is natural, but their spin does not equal reality. Glenn Beck wants Obama to fail. The American People want him to succeed. We still have hope for him. The Republicans should be ashamed of their hypocritical and unpatriotic approach. They do not have the best interests of the country at heart.

Posted by: novgorodva | July 30, 2009 9:35 PM | Report abuse

"We know of no one but Xerxes who was so intoxicated with his power as to say to the waves, 'Thus far shall ye come, and no farther.' The waves, however, did not retreat from Xerxes, but Xerxes from the waves, and, if not for this wise but humiliating precaution, he would have been drowned."

Posted by: Loxin | July 30, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

Twelve people in Maryland (a Democratic state) and that is the basis for Obama optimism?
It has always been easier to win an election than to govern. Charisma might get you to 1600 PA Ave., but it doesn't always work in the halls of power - Congress.
The President, theoretically, doesn't even have so much power as laid out in the Constitution, but I said "theoretically."
There is a Congress, two parts, remember?
People have set this guy up as a savior of sorts, and that is really not how the American government works.

Posted by: Chatelaine | July 30, 2009 8:41 PM | Report abuse

I have been a strong supporter of Obama and I have noted that my support waxes and wanes. These twelve independents seemed to have a pretty realistic opinion and expectation of Obama. This report seems a lot more sensible than most of the blather that comes from main stream media. Most Americans want Obama to succeed. He has been unwise to not comment about what he sees as necessary for the American people to be protected from the ruthless insurers.

Posted by: Gator-ron | July 30, 2009 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Remember, "There are lies, damned lies and statistics" - just substitute "polls" for statistics and you have my opinion on these so-called polls. I am 72, have voted in every election since I was 21 - city, state, federal - and not once have I been asked my opinion in a poll.

Mkes me wonder where they get the pollees (don't know if there is such a word).

Posted by: Utahreb | July 30, 2009 8:05 PM | Report abuse

Where were the apologist, brown-nosing, fawning articles from the Post when the polls for Bush were falling?

There are reasons the MSM is going the way of the Dodo Bird, and this is a shining example.

Posted by: mdore1 | July 30, 2009 7:54 PM | Report abuse

No, the Obama supporters have not "disappeared".
What you're seeing is that the anti-Obama crowd continues to swell because as the "lowest common denominator" they are the ones who are getting laid off from their jobs and so they have all day to sit around and do this crap.
Meanwhile, the Obama supporters are shouldering the burden and working hard and paying taxes so the "ignorant and weak" can collect unemployment and sit at home and trash Obama all day.
We're still here. We're just very, very busy.

Posted by: Tomcat3 | July 30, 2009 7:04 PM | Report abuse



Posted by: Tomcat3 | July 30, 2009 7:00 PM | Report abuse

I was an Obama supporter throughout the campaign and obviously happy when he won. And contrary to all the booing and hissing from the folks who never would have voted for him anyway, I still support him. Sure, there are things I wish he would handle a little differently, but overall I think he's doing a good job. And like someone has already mentioned, I am absolutely positively sure that I wouldn't be happy with what the Republicans would be doing if McCain had won.

People are so friggin' impatient in this country. So yeah, that means that maybe Obama could slow down on a few things, though I totally believe in his pressure to reform healthcare. But mostly I think all the folks who are ranting and raving about how the economy hasn't fully recovered yet to give it a rest. It took a while to get into this mess, and it's going to take a while to get out of it.

Posted by: sally1860 | July 30, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

"Obama is actually -- on health care, anyway -- trying to improve the system for the vast majority of us"

Money for nothin', chicks for free...
Mark Knopfler
Dire Straits


Posted by: Billw3 | July 30, 2009 6:07 PM | Report abuse


Now Obama's charisma begins to fade
'cause his hand has been overplayed.
He ought to step down,
Stop playing the clown
'cause above his paygrade he is paid.


Posted by: Billw3 | July 30, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

I think what matters most is whether people think the president is trying to advocate on their behalf or whether they think the president is trying to advocate on behalf of himself or his cronies.

Obama has hit a rough patch. Some of this is the nature of policy. That is,fixing health care reform is an enormous challenge. It requires people who are openly opposed to fixing it to provide input. This is just how it is. We all knew Jeff Sessions was going to oppose Sonia Sotomayor. That doesn't mean, however, that Jeff Sessions should have been excluded from the hearings. The same is true with health care.

So, I do think Obama's numbers are slipping, but I think that's beacuse he's actually governing now. And, that means there will be people who will openly distort and there will be others who demand to delay legislation and there will be still others who believe the legislation (in good faith) needs certain provisions. This is the nature of democracy.

But, Obama is actually -- on health care, anyway -- trying to improve the system for the vast majority of us. That is a good thing.

Posted by: teoandchive | July 30, 2009 6:01 PM | Report abuse

Someone asked where the Obama supporters had disappeared to. We're all working hard, like our President is. Don't worry. We'll be back when he needs us.
Anger is the greatest motivation for posting, and so many are so angry that their selfish world view is no longer espoused by the leader of the nation. I, for one, was transformed by Obama, by someone who was once concerned about marginal tax rates to someone who now believes that we have a moral imperative to make sure that everyone in the country receives adequate health care. I was one who would ahve been injured by Pelosi's higher tax on the wealthy, but, believe it or not Sarah, though you may make fun of us, there are some of us who believe that it is patriotic to pay taxes, so long as the taxes are supporting a government we can believe in. I'm disappointed that the Blue Dogs are so protective of the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
Like Michelle, I ahven't always been proud to be an American, but I am now, despite living in the same country as some of you that are posting.

Posted by: richardshaker | July 30, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Depending on who conducted the poll, the poll is skewed. I would no more believe an ABC/Washington Post poll than I would believe a poll put out by SEIU. Doesn't matter what numbers they put out, it matters how the questions are framed. Obama is tanking because he has tried to talk without his teleprompter. Anyone who hasn't caught onto to his tricks yet are deaf, dumb and blind. I'm from Chicago, fool me once, twice, three times, and the Dummycrats will still get the votes.

Posted by: marine2211 | July 30, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

When Bush was in office, the Washington Post beat him over the head with polling numbers. Now that the preferred candidate is in office and headed south in the polls, they suddenly don't mean anything. We'll see what they mean starting in November with the recently blue Virginia and the long-time blue New Jersey kick out the Dems.

Posted by: kenpasadena | July 30, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

The folks quoted in the article do not reflect my views. I voted for Obama. I drank no kool-aid. I know he's a player.

I was elated when he was elected. I wept during the inauguration. Whatever else is true, it was a growing up moment for the US.

My criticisms of Obama are not about money, they are about humanity. He is as bad a warmonger as Bush. He is drenched in the blood of innocents, in service to the war industry. That disgusts me. Obama, knowing full well it would happen (it is, after all, the job of the president of the united states to preside over the nations main industry which is war) has allowed himself to be corrupted. It's sad to see. he is not championing civil rights or civil liberties, he is compromising them. Rather than stop the momentum of the Bush destructo machine he is adding to it.

I see in comments here and on other comment boards this obsessive partisanship. The right hates the left, the left hates the right, people call names, it's nasty. It's childish. It's also off the mark. The people running the so-called right and the people running the so-called left ( I am referring to the Democrats and the Republicans, not grassroots movements) are essentially the same. They are rich. Most of them are white. Most of them enjoy privilege that most of US will never know. Most of them don't really care about helping others, they are in it for selfish gain. They may not have always been that way, but that's what happens to a person when they have everything, and are constantly being bribed and having their behinds kissed. That's what happens when people are willing to trade lives and money in the game of politics. It is an utterly corrupt system filled with corrupt people.

If we want real change it's going to mean really putting a stop to some things. It's going to mean no longer participating in the machine, the lie of work and debt and taxes. It's not so different from the middle ages really.

OK here endeth my rant.

Posted by: mtnmanvt | July 30, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

"What Do Poll Numbers Really Mean for Obama?"

NOTHING - assuming these are the "rigged" polls of WaPo.

To illustrate the perversity of the WaPo bias, look at their explanation of how they get "poll" results. By their own admission (these admissions suggest they feel guilty from their outrageous crimes against responsible journalism), they intentionally distort the pool of respondents to increase the number of those expected to support their loony-left agenda. Most people call this "fixing the result".

Posted by: LoonyLeft | July 30, 2009 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Give me a break! Obama's polls are slipping because of reckless spending! He's afraid to wait as the American voters are finally waking up to wrong "Change" and dismal "Hope". Ask the people unemployed....

Look at the earmarks still going to Murtha, Dodd, Franks, Rangel, Pelosi, Reid, etc. No more to ACORN, SEIU, HCAN, etc.

Posted by: jmburgeredskin | July 30, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

Note the Obama supporters have disappeared on droves on most blogs.


Posted by: Billw3 | July 30, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Wright, Black Liberation, Black Panthers, Farrakhan, Ayers, Dohrn, Weatherman, Gates, ACORN, S.E.I.U., Alinsky, Davis, Socialists, Communist, Marxists, Muslim heritage, Union Thugs, Soros, CZARS, God knows who else, and Barry Soetoro. All one big happy gaggle of like minds.

Posted by: ChangeWhat | July 30, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

While I may have doubts about Obama, I'm still very sure of one thing: I don't want Republicans running anything.

Posted by: mikem1 | July 30, 2009 2:25 PM

I don't care what color, party or nationality our leaders are, I just want the truth. I am so sick of the lies. "We're against raising taxes!" Yet they do. "We're against raising the National Debt." Yet it is, BY ALL OF THEM. What I would really like to know is what criminal genious' really run this country because it isn't the politicians. They truly are hacks.

Posted by: ssol4569 | July 30, 2009 3:50 PM | Report abuse

"Obama is moving too quickly"

Yes, it's best if you have crap to inflict on Americans, do it slowly or the stench is overwhelming. Incremental liberal crap is why we have the present problems.
Look no further than the Democrat controlled FNMA that for years was a tenuous loan generator and pushed off the cliff by spiking energy prices that the "No New Practical Domestic Energy" Democrats produced.

Meanwhile the Media stays in bed with Obama/Pelosi/Democrats.

Posted by: ekim53 | July 30, 2009 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Whenever Wash Post/ABC poll results are Obama positive, which is the majority of the time, there must be one big fist fight at the Post over who will write a big slobber fest article detailing the results. Now that other polls are not quite in Obama's favor, the Post sends out Balz to suspect the results. BTW, where is the latest Post/ABC poll on Obama?

Posted by: 12oreo | July 30, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse

While I may have doubts about Obama, I'm still very sure of one thing: I don't want Republicans running anything.

Posted by: mikem1 | July 30, 2009 2:25 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: WashingtonDame | July 30, 2009 2:10 PM | Report abuse

I agree that the night Obama was elected it was magical since he looked like the perfect leader for the new millennium. Unfortunately he has turned out to be pretty much of a hack. Just remember he has spent in six months what it took Bush to spend in six years in Iraq, one trillion dollars. With nothing to show for it other than a give away to the corrupt UAW, and the crooked AIGs of the world. He could have given half a million dollars to every house hold in the US for that trillion and at least regular people, consumers could spend it directly. Barack is in league with the likes of Barney Frank, Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the hogs with their snouts in the public trough. It is very likely Obama will be one term, so we should all be careful what we ask for.

Posted by: marcom_news | July 30, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

The polls seem to show that Obama has jumped the shark. Viewership has been abysmal for his recent presser, and the combination of Sotomayor/Ricci SCOTUS decision/GatesHoax has awakened in a majority of voters a nagging suspicion that Obama is a classic Race Man simply working the levers of power to get more for his people. Every piece of major legislation he has pushed includes big benefits or affirmative action mandates for blacks. As the economic pie shrinks, he appears to be grabbing what he can for the Affirmative Action-ocracy.

Posted by: greg3 | July 30, 2009 1:55 PM | Report abuse

Obama is obsessed with needing praise from live audiences. Maybe also the 'catered to' thrill of riding Air Force One, Marine One, the motorcades, and guarded escorts. He went yesterday to North Carolina and Virginia to speak. These trips happen with almost unbelievable frequency. The man's priorities are not compatible with being President. Regarding this, one hears the word narcisist way too often nowadays.


Posted by: Billw3 | July 30, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

Charisma worked well with young naive American voters, but it doesn't cut it in world affairs and the business world.


Posted by: Billw3 | July 30, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

When Bush was President, the Post loved the polls against him. Now the polls are turning against Obama and now they are wrong?

Hey, I am all for Obama succeeding in this mess, but come on. It is what it is. The poll are slipping and inventing something to explain it away is why we are in this mess to begin with.

How did this piece even get past the editor?

Posted by: mikeMM | July 30, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

Balz has balls. Cheerleading. Mass koolaid drinking.

Posted by: Cornell1984 | July 30, 2009 1:18 PM | Report abuse

It's not what the polls say that matters most. It is the way the headline writers skew the polls that really matters.

I'm looking at today's CBS-New York Times poll. The CBS headline (web site) says, "Public Conflicted Over Health Reform." But the figures show when people were asked, "Who has better ideas for health care reform," 55% say the Democrats and 26% the Republicans. So the headline skewed the poll results, and some people only read headlines.

Are people conflicted? The polls show they are, but they don't show the nature of the conflict. Your own poll a week or so ago showed 49% (if I remember correctly) were leery of President Obama's handling of health care, but another story deeper in the web site showed a part of those in the 49% didn't think Obama has gone far enough. In other words, it is not that 49% are opposed to health care reform. A much smaller percentage were opposed to health care reform as a principle.

So the polls do confuse things because they show strong support for Obama, the kinds of questions we would all have as these details are worked out, and the power of the press to skew perceptions by the way they its headline writers write their headlines and lead paragraphs.

Posted by: tinyjab40 | July 30, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company