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Parsing the Polls: The Era of Big Government (Or Not)

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll says that more than 6 in 10 Americans approve of the job President Obama is doing. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

The new Washington Post/ABC News national poll provides scads of good news for President Obama: two-thirds of Americans approve of the job he is doing; he receives little blame for the current state of the economy; and he is far more trusted than Republicans in Congress to solve the nation's problems both foreign and domestic.

But, amid all of the positive data, one potentially sour note caught our ear; the country remains deeply conflicted about the role government should play in their lives.

Asked whether increased government spending to improve the economy or a smaller spending approach in order to keep the deficit under control was more important to them, 49 percent chose the spending option while 47 percent opted for the deficit choice.

Those numbers compare unfavorably to Post/ABC polling done days before Obama's inauguration when 51 percent said increased spending was more important while 44 percent opted for an avoidance of further deficit spending.

Why does this data point matter? Because President Obama has made clear that he believes the era of small government is over and that, while the government can't solve all of peoples' problems, it clearly has to play a larger role than it did during the Bush administration.

In a major speech on the economy delivered a week before he was inaugurated as the 44th president, Obama argued: "Only government can break the vicious cycles that are crippling our economy -- where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending."

In office he has put that rhetoric to action, using government spending to spark job creation, shore up the nation's banks and likely to prop up the fading American automobile industry.

Republicans, in turn, have sought to paint Obama as a traditional liberal Democrat who believes that spending the government's money and raising taxes is the only way to solve the problems facing the country. (Voters don't appear to be buying that particular line of attack, however. In the Post poll just 32 percent said Obama was an "old style, tax-and-spend Democrat" while 62 percent said he was a "new style Democrat who will be careful with the public's money.")

What's clear from the Post poll is that while Obama still gets the benefit of the doubt -- in a substantial way -- from voters, the underlying premise of his plans to rebuild the nation's economy remains a somewhat risky move politically as voters are genuinely conflicted about significantly adding to the size of the national debt.

The last eight years have convinced voters that they need government in their lives. To what extent the government should be involved, however, remains a point of debate.

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 31, 2009; 3:18 PM ET
Categories:  Parsing the Polls  
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It's not really that suprising that Obama's nearly 60% approval rating, although I've never been asked by a pollster to rate the guy, doesn't translate into overwhelming support for his policies. I'd actually be suprised if there is really 49% support for huge amounts of deficit spending to "fix" the economy as CC states above. Especially if you explain to the people you're polling that they will have to eventually pay massive tax increases to pay for all that new goverment spending. Right now a lot of people think all that money the government is throwing around hoping it'll stick to something is "free" money or least money they personally won't have any responsibility to pay back. They believe Obama, Pelosi, Reid's assertions that the "rich" will pay for it all. Course to a Democrat anyone working and not on goverment welfare is "rich" so I wouldn't get my hopes up too much. Also, sooner or later the Chinese will want their money back and the U.S. Treasury will print so much money the whole country will be bankrupt so don't worry about it.

Posted by: RobT1 | April 1, 2009 10:28 AM | Report abuse

It is way too early for the public to register negative numbers in the poll except for those that didn't vote for him to begin with. At this point, citizens are not linking the bad economy with Obama and his policies because as of yet they haven't had time to work or not. Will the stimulus work? Will the second round of TARP work? What will happen to GM? If all these plans show some promise, people may be inclined to forget about the increase in taxes coming due to that excessive spending. Remember states are only at this point figuring how they will raise taxes. It is when it happens that opinions will change and change a lot.

Posted by: jkachmar | April 1, 2009 12:10 AM | Report abuse

Can you hear that?

It's as if millions of American-hating Republicans all screamed in pain at the same time ...

Posted by: WillSeattle | March 31, 2009 10:59 PM | Report abuse

Eventually even the "strongly approves" will get tired of a sick economy and eventually Obama won't have George Bush to blame. If unemployment is above 8 percent in March 2010, I don't see how Obama will continue to benefit in the polls. Housing prices are not going to rise much, and will probably be even lower than today. Nobody in the business world seems very optimistic. The stock market is off the lows, but lower than we were on Jan. 1. Washington may be the only economic bright spot as the federal government starts to balloon in size and benefits the local economy. Even though he hasn't passed the 100 day mark, some polls are already heading south of 60 percent.

Posted by: kenpasadena | March 31, 2009 8:44 PM | Report abuse


What era of smaller government? I don't think I've been alive for that era. You mean the past 8 years when the budget grew from $1.9 trillion to over $3 trillion, when Bush enacted the largest new entitlement since LBJ, imposed tarrifs on steel, signed every pork-infested bill, signed McCain-Feingold, and signed Sarbanes-Oxley? That's small government? I guess Hoover was a small goverment man himself, what with public works projects like the Hoover Dam and increasing government spending as a percentage of GDP from 3% to 8%.

Posted by: sambatkins | March 31, 2009 5:18 PM | Report abuse

goody goody---

The Obama administration decided Tuesday to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, reversing a decision by the Bush administration to shun the United Nations' premier rights body to protest the influence of repressive states, according to U.N. diplomats and rights activists.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | March 31, 2009 5:06 PM | Report abuse

Junkies will want to know that the MN judicial panel reviewing the Coleman-Franken election contest has issued rulings. They are available at MPR, and elsewhere:

MPR & MN Post will likely have more commentary later ( )

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 31, 2009 5:04 PM | Report abuse

I guess one would have to ask...were we already heading toward bigger government at light speed and what would have happened if Obama had lost to Clinton.

Posted by: newbeeboy | March 31, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

The path of the stimulus legislation -- three weeks of media grousing that Obama's honeymoon was already over, followed by Obama getting almost exactly what he wanted in a bill that everyone agreed was a quick, major victory -- is indicative of why Obama remains popular.

The public is tuning out the day-to-day carping from Republicans and their pundits, and is giving Obama a nice, long opportunity to get things done. We now have the Smartest Man in the Room making policy and explaining it calmly to the electorate -- in press conferences as well as on Jay Leno -- rather than having the Dumbest Man in the Room talking condescendingly to us and stoking fear.

That all may change if Obama's policies don't actually work ... but the public is going to continue to support him until the EVIDENCE suggests we shouldn't, rather than ranting TV goofballs or obstructionist congressional Republicans.

Posted by: jonfromcali | March 31, 2009 4:33 PM | Report abuse

" Because President Obama has made clear that he believes the era of small government is over and that, while the government can't solve all of peoples' problems, it clearly has to play a larger role than it did during the Bush administration."

Come on, CC. The 'era of small government' was over about 30 years ago. Do you really not know, or wish to talk about, how much bigger [and how much more bloated/wasteful in the Defense Department} under Cheney and Bush.

Please don't be so lazy -- it's disappointing. Surely you can do better.

Posted by: drindl | March 31, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

"The last eight years have convinced voters that they need government in their lives. To what extent the government should be involved, however, remains a point of debate"

not so fast......
government was always IN YOUR LIFE.
it's called law and code.
nothing new there except how we have "skirted" it for a decade.

to what extent?
hmmm, let's read the USA Patriot Act and find out how far that "extent" has been taken.

Posted by: TheBabeNemo | March 31, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I would love to feel relief at this, but agree with the other commenters that it's too early to tell if this kind of support can hold. My guess-- it won't. Too much damage has been done for Obama to effectively undo it all in one term... or-- dare I say it-- in two.

He's been focusing on what people care about, which has not gone unnoticed. It's such an about-face compared to "W." That guy really needed to think about the little people, you know... join the Power of Small movement and embrace his inner... something.

Anyway, it's great to see Republicans aren't all listening to the Bobby Jindal "let's bring down Obama for no reason other than he's a Democrat at the expense of the entire country" strategy. Phew.

Posted by: changeisgonnacomeusa | March 31, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse


Sy Hersh: Cheney installed "stay behinds" to report back to him

Now read the article "Gestapo USA" and put it all together:

(This article was posted to DailyKos earlier today but the link was somehow removed from the main diary list.)

Posted by: scrivener50 | March 31, 2009 4:19 PM | Report abuse

scrivener writes
"It is my conclusion that a rogue government surveillance operation is CENSORING political speech in America."

David Duchovny called, he wants his role back.


Posted by: bsimon1 | March 31, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

The Fix writes
"the underlying premise of his plans to rebuild the nation's economy remains a somewhat risky move politically as voters are genuinely conflicted about significantly adding to the size of the national debt."

The Obama admin is likely considering the politics of their plan in terms of how they will get it passed. I don't see them being as worried so much about the long term political impact as much as about the long term economic impact. If they can't solve the economic problems we face, the political fallout is clear: another President will get a chance to try to solve the problem.

Posted by: bsimon1 | March 31, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

SY HERSH: Cheney installed "stay behinds" to report back to him

• See DailyKos for a report

There's somethin' happening here, what it is, ain't exactly clear...

My last four attempts to post a comment about this elicited the "held for blog owner" message -- even though Wa-Po does
NOT "hold" posts (unless foul language is detected).

It is my conclusion that a rogue government surveillance operation is CENSORING political speech in America. I have written about my experiences regarding prior restraint and/or censorship at, free speech section, "internet filters" thread (under "older entries").

I openly wonder whether we are not in the midst of a silent coup -- a coup that Sy Hersh is trying to prevent by discussing his findings even before they are published.

I say this as someone who has worked in the mainstream media for more than 30 years. I have NEVER experienced such overt censorship, and I don't think it would happen if the brazen officials ordering it didn't think they could get away with it.

God save our country, and our liberty.

For more:

Posted by: scrivener50 | March 31, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Polling will not capture any useful information from Americans about the role of the government in the economy. It will not be consistent, because there is no well understood definition of terms. It will not be consistent because emotions control when unemployment is feared. It will not be consistent because the economy is a moving target.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | March 31, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

There is just a bit of a difference in meaning between "Big Government" and "Big Government Big Deficit Spending" that makes the question on the economy less of a sour note for barack than itis made to seem. Being reluctant to go for as massive a temoprary deficit as Barack is a minor point, and Many of those in the forty seven percent group are still likely to go with Barack in spite of their mis givings than go against him and doing something to deal with the economic disaster. This may be especially true since Republican after republican claims that the republicans have an alternative plan ,,, which never actually gets put before the public because it consists in trying to go back to the Bush approach, cut taxes and start wars.

Give the Democrats AT LEAST six months before you try taking polls on how the people really feel about Barack.

WHEN he has some positive results, start asking people how they feel about obstructionist Republicans.

Posted by: ceflynline | March 31, 2009 4:00 PM | Report abuse

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