By Dan Froomkin
12:25 PM ET, 03/19/2009
Back on Monday, I noted a Pew Research Center poll's finding that, contrary to the emerging consensus of the Washington punditocracy, only 35 percent of Americans think President Obama is trying to tackle too many issues in his first few months. Fully 56 percent of the poll's respondents said Obama is "doing about right" -- while four percent said he was actually focusing on too few issues.
But then yesterday, along came a new CNN poll with what appeared to be dramatically different results.
"Fifty-five percent of people questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Wednesday say that since he's taken over in the White House, President Obama has tried to handle more issues than he should have. Forty-three percent say he hasn't bitten off more than he can chew," wrote Paul Steinhauser under the headline, "Poll: Obama's taken on too much, say Americans."
The poll also found, by the way, that "a majority, 58 percent, feel that the president's programs strike the right political tone for the country....59 percent say they approve of how the President's handling the economy, 57 percent like how Obama's dealing with health care, 63 percent approve of his energy policy and 65 percent back him on education reform. Sixty-six percent like Obama's approach to foreign affairs, with 63 percent approving of how he handles Iraq, 67 percent agreeing with him on Afghanistan and 61 percent approving of his performance in the fight against terrorism."
How, then, to reconcile these two apparently opposing results?
I put the question to pollster.com's Mark Blumenthal. In his blog, Blumenthal writes that "the usual culprit in these sorts of discrepancies is that pollsters are asking about something that a lot of respondents have not really considered before....As a general rule, it is hard to understate how often ordinary Americans are oblivious to the controversies that seem oh-so important inside the beltway, on cable news or the blogosphere. I would wager that the is-Obama-overextended meme is probably one of them."
But he also notes that "although both questions ostensibly ask about the same idea, they use different wording.
"In particular, the Pew question is far more explicit about labeling one option as approving of Obama's performance ('Obama is...doing about right'), while the CNN equivalent is a little more vague ('Obama has tried to handle more issues than he should have'). Perhaps some respondents interpret the words 'should have' differently, agreeing that Obama is having to handle more issues than he 'should have' were these ordinary times. Or perhaps some are not hearing the words 'than he should have' at all, and instead interpret the question as asking whether Obama is trying to handle many issues or few issues."
After reading Blumenthal's post, what became increasingly clear to me was that you can't really conclude definitively from the CNN poll whether people are happy or unhappy with Obama's behavior, whereas in the Pew poll, there was a distinct value judgment.
So what both polls say, taken together, is that people think Obama is doing a lot -- but they're not really concerned about it.