Obama behind the poll numbers

 Peter Hart, the respected Democratic pollster, is now circulating the results of his latest focus group, this time featuring a dozen independent voters who live in suburban Maryland. His goal, as always, was to ask nuanced questions and elicit nuanced replies, in order to dig beneath the polling numbers and give us an idea of what people are really thinking. As Hart put it last fall, during a late October session in Ohio, "the purpose is not to count noses, but to hear what is going on in their heads."

That Ohio session was memorable, as I recall; even though Barack Obama was clearly headed for victory, in Ohio and nationwide, Hart sought to question that conventional wisdom by sounding a note of skepticism. After meeting a dozen undecided voters from a bellwether working-class county, he wrote a report contending that a lot of people were not necessarily sold on Obama, that at the eleventh hour Obama was still viewed by some swing voters as either too new or too slick. In other words, Hart is no reflexive partisan; he goes with the information flow.

And by going with the flow in his new report on suburban Maryland independents, he is again defying conventional wisdom. He says that these independents, who have "few ties to either party," still view Obama favorably even though they are somewhat restive about his work.   

The latest conventional wisdom, sparked by all the latest polls, is that the electorate's romance with Obama is over, that he has plunged to earth thanks to public disenchantment with his health care reform initiative and his general handling of the recessionary economy. Hart doesn't dispute the poll numbers, because he can't.

Hart conducts the NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, in partnership with Republican pollster Bill McInturff, and the latest findings, released last week, clearly show presidential erosion. Back in April, Hart and McInturff reported that 61 percent of Americans approved of Obama's job performance, with only 30 percent saying otherwise; in the latest report, 53 percent approve and 40 percent do not. Back in February, 54 percent said they were "extremely confident" or "quite confident" that Obama had "the right set of goals or policies." Today, 46 percent feel that way. And today, on a separate question, only 35 percent see his policies as taking the country in the right direction. All told, as Hart acknowledged in his new report, "today's political environment is tougher for the president."

And yet...

Not all thumbs-down verdicts are alike. A presidential poll drop can occur because the electorate doesn't like the guy anymore, or because it has decided that it can't trust him anymore, or because it hates his policies forevermore. But the Obama poll drop is none of those things. As evidenced by Hart's conversations with those Maryland independents, Obama's plight is something far more benign.

In essence, while they are concerned about some key aspects of Obama's early performance - most notably, by the speed in which he is attempting to enact sweeping reforms - they nevertheless like him personally, laud his frequent communication efforts, and, unlike the Republicans in Washington, they're basically rooting for him to succeed. As Hart put it in his new report, "(Their) attitudes...reveal how closely connected Barack Obama is to voters, and the level of psychological investment they have in his success."

For instance, he was struck by "the intimacy and connection voters feel to President Obama. Simply asking this group to 'tell me who you voted for in 2008,' elicited not the standard 'Obama' reply, but, rather 'Barack.' This is so highly unusual. People always always say 'Bush' or 'McCain' or 'Clinton' or 'Reagan.' That these voters refer to the president of the United States using just his first name reveals a highly unusual sense of connection and approachability between them and him."

Hart's observation might strike you as superficial. But it's important to remember that, back in the early '80s, Ronald Reagan's personality was lauded far more than his policies. His personal bond with the electorate helped him weather the tough times - especially during his first couple years, when there were few indications that his conservative agenda would pull the nation out of a crippling recession. (Obama-haters may not want to hear this: Reagan's job approval rating stood at 42 percent in 1982, when the jobless rate hit a 40-year high.)

Hart's Maryland independents made it clear that, while they are restive about how things are going, they are nonetheless invested in seeing Obama succeed. One of the participants, a 63-year-old graphic designer said that he expects that America will be worse off in two years - yet when asked what he would say to Obama if given the opportunity, he replied: "Keep up the good work - we're still behind you." A movie theater owner, who voted last year for McCain, said that he would tell Obama, "Stay strong." Another guy, a network administrator who is now jobless, wants to tell Obama, "Don't give up. We haven't."

A president is often in big trouble when the electorate decides to simply tune him out. Obama may be suffering some poll erosion, but Hart's independents are actually eager to tune him in. According to the current Washington conventional wisdom, Obama is overexposed, but that's not how these independents feel. One woman, a dental hygienist, says of his frequent TV and town hall appearances, "I like it. He is showing himself...more upfront." Another woman, who sells real estate, says that Obama "explains to people so they can understand it."

By contrast, they still don't seem particularly eager to listen to any of the Republicans. Sarah Palin, for instance, was generally dismissed as "comical" and "an idiot," with the jobless network administrator offering a somewhat sexist observation: "If I wanted a stripper for president, she'd be my pick." The fact is that, in the latest Hart-McInturff poll, only 28 percent of Americans have "very positive" or "somewhat positive" perceptions of the Republican party, a stat that has barely budged all year. (Forty-two percent view the Democrats positively, seven points lower than in February.)

But even though Obama clearly has the floor, he may not have an easy time satisfying these swing voters. In part, this is because they have conflicting impulses. As evidenced by their conversations with Hart, they are (in his words) "eager to see progress in the areas of the economy, employment, and health care." Which would suggest that Obama needs to rack up some big achievements, pronto.

Yet, at the same time, they told Hart that they don't want to see too much too quickly. As Hart writes, "they are wary of rapid change and want to understand and digest any major policies...(Their) biggest worries are about the amount of money the government is spending and the speed at which it is making significant changes to how the country operates." In the words of one participant, a young teacher, "The speed that he's doing things - it's a little bit of a gamble."

Hence, Obama's somewhat paradoxical challenge: These independents want him to be bold, to demonstrate "progress" in curing the nation's serious ills. Yet, at the same time, they want him to do it slowly (unmindful of the fact that a new president needs to be bold in his first year, before the congressional elections make it nearly impossible for him to get anything done). And here's the thing: if Obama was to considerably slow his pace, he later would be criticized, perhaps by some of these same independents, for dragging his feet.

Can Obama thread the needle, achieve at some appropriate speed, and retain the affection of these swing voters who still personally root for him? That might be a tough task for any mere mortal, and, as one of Hart's independents said of Obama, "he's just human."