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Evaluating the Post-Presidential Campaign


Next week we will be 10 months into the Obama post-presidential political campaign and we thought it would be a good time to inventory its positives and negatives. The administration is bringing a political campaign approach to its policy agenda; as such, it is probably best to view its strategies and tactics through the same prism.

Positives:

  1. The President's activist agenda is in strong contrast to Bush and perceptions of the last years of the Bush presidency. Few voters are likely to say that Obama is not trying to do something. While some pundits will argue that Obama is overexposed, we disagree. His offensive on healthcare the last 45 days has been a plus. There are simply too many diversions in our digital, 24/7 media world that keep people from paying attention. His improved approval rating is a reflection of this. One possible negative implication is the growing perception that his activity is a sign of big government intrusion. A must-read on this topic is a piece filed yesterday by Liz Sidoti of the Associated Press.
  2. Sotomayor. The handling of the Sotomayor nomination to the Supreme Court was terrific and helped steady the ship in early August. While there was some grumbling from Republicans about the choice of a "Wise Latina" the end result was that Obama was able to replace Souter with someone who is just 55 years young and certainly tilts the court further to the left. This is not just a victory for progressive jurisprudence, however, but also from a PR standpoint: while expending minimal political capital, Obama was able to make history by naming the first Hispanic and third female to the SCOTUS.
  3. Despite early PR blunders on health care, the President's reform campaign over the last 30 days has stopped the public opinion bleeding. Two things have happened: first, the public is more likely now to believe that health care reform is a top priority than back in July; and second, voters are less apprehensive that the plan would not harm them. This tells you one thing: the President never should have outsourced the first phase of healthcare reform to Congress. Team Obama said they were doing that because of lessons learned from Clinton's healthcare push in 1993. If so, they learned the wrong lesson.

Negatives:

  1. The President and his team appear to have misinterpreted their 2008 victory as a mandate for social change. Uncharacteristically, this appears to have been done with little regard to actual public opinion. Voters last November were looking for change, but it was almost all about the economy/jobs (and, to a much lesser extent, Iraq). Obama's approval rating drop is tied to the rising unemployment rate and a belief that he is not solving the nation's economic problems. As long as consumer confidence lags, so will the President's numbers.
  2. The "stimulus package" was a PR bust. In a recent WSJ poll, less than half of voters (46%) thought the stimulus prevented a greater downturn. According to a CBS poll from last week, while a plurality (47%) see the stimulus as making the economy better in the long run, nearly as many see it as either making the economy worse (21%) or having no impact (24%). The bottom line is that the focus should have been on jobs. A late September survey conducted by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin for the Economic Policy Institute showed that more than 8 in 10 registered voters (81%) thought that the Obama administration needs to do more about unemployment and disappearing jobs. Only 13% thought the president had done enough. Again, polls showed support for a targeted jobs package with a combination of some infrastructure investment and tax cuts. All of which would have been tough to argue against and may have even garnered bipartisan support.
  3. Team Obama misplayed healthcare from the get-go. They aimed big, which isn't a bad thing, but they aimed so big that it has come crashing down on them. Then, to make matters worse, they learned the wrong "lesson" from 1994 ("don't give them an actual plan to pick apart") and came across as indecisive and unprepared due to their lack of specificity. Public opinion polls show that there is support for substantive change to our healthcare system, but there are a lot of items they should have and could have accomplished with bipartisan support (electronic medical records, health insurance reform vis-à-vis pre-existing conditions, etc.) that would have allowed them to claim health reform "victory" while setting them up for more substantive change down the road. The key lesson from 1994 was "don't bite off more than you can chew (in other words, more than the people want and are ready for)" and they whiffed on that. The public decided that covering more people but allowing everyone who currently has coverage to keep the same coverage without spending more money was probably impossible. We may still see bills pass the floor of both the House and Senate in the coming weeks which would cause the public's perception of Obama's handling to rebound; however, it is undeniable that a good measure of damage has already been done.
  4. The White House miscalculated the seriousness and intensity of the Town Hall meetings and then added insult to injury by saying that the town hall participants were not legitimate, which only served to make voters angrier. The tactic backfired in a big way.
  5. Obama ran as the "anti-politician" but his job now is inherently political, which diminishes his biggest attribute. This partially explains Obama's rapid approval rating drop. It is not necessarily because of his policies (although some of it assuredly is); it is because of the fact that he is doing anything at all. Before he was above the fray, now he is in it.

Neutral:

  1. The Nobel Peace Prize. It is obvious how the prize feeds the negative perception that Obama is overly lauded despite having a thin record of actual accomplishments. However, it was completely beyond the White House's control that a group of six inscrutable Norwegians decided to bestow the Nobel Peace Prize on Obama. Furthermore, by donating away the monetary prize and treating the honor as a "Call to Action" Obama largely was able to defuse the blowback.

An Up-to-the-Minute Review of the Public Opinion Landscape as of Noon Today:

  • The fact that the storyline this morning is about the insurance industry launching a multi-state ad campaign attacking the health care plan - is a positive for the President. A CBS News poll in August had the insurance industry's unfavorable rating at 46%. Although we must say that the attack line -- warning that seniors in private Medicare plans could lose benefits under the legislation - is a pretty good one.
  • Obama's approval rating is slowly trending back up. The latest Gallup tracking poll result (released yesterday) now shows Obama at 56% approval and 36% disapproval. Our synthesis of the most recent public and private polls has his approval rating at 53% and disapproval at 41%. This is a marked improvement over 30 days ago. At that time his disapproval rating was at 45% according to our average of all polls at that time). Remember that his approval rating drop from the mid-60's was with all major demographic and political groups. It fell 11 points among women and nine points among men; and by 12 points among Republicans, 10 points among Democrats and nine points among independents from April to September. Look for polls to show improvement among these groups in the coming days and weeks.

    obama approval oct 14.jpg

  • The New Jersey Governor's race will go to the wire but Virginia is almost certainly over. A new Quinnipiac poll has NJ in a statistical tie with the Democrat incumbent Corzine at 40%, Republican Christie at 41% and Independent Chris Daggett at 14%. McDonnell has been up between 8-15% for almost two months. While there was some tightening in VA in mid-September due to the "Thesis" story (especially in northern Virginia), McDonnell appears to have regained his solid lead--due in large part with ads aimed at Independents and women. Enthusiasm for McDonnell is twice that for Deeds according to the Washington Post. In an off year election this is critical. Barring some sort of surprise, Virginia will elect a Republican Governor in 3 weeks.
  • While stocks are surging this morning, unemployment is still the key driver of public opinion and it remains abysmal. The unemployment rate when Barrack Obama took office was 7.6% and 11.6 million Americans were unemployed. The current rate of unemployment (as of September) is 9.8% and the number of jobless Americans is 15.1 million. Below are the number of payroll jobs the country has lost month-by-month since January. (August and September data is still "provisional.")

    job losses.jpg


  • The 2010 elections will be almost exclusively about the economy and jobs. While it is speculation at best to estimate the magnitude of losses Democrats might endure it is instructive to look at what happened during the 1981-1982 recession. In January of 1981 when Reagan took office unemployment was at 7.5%. In November of 1982 unemployment had risen to 10.8%. Reagan's approval rating at the time of the election had dropped to 43% (47% disapproval). Democrats picked up 26 seats in the House and one in the Senate. Of course this election will have its own set of variables (including retirements, candidate recruitment, generic ballot, partisan identification) but we do tend to think that two numbers will be hugely important a year from now: the President's approval rating and unemployment. Even if the recession "ends" tomorrow, unemployment is a lagging indicator and that number will almost definitely be higher on Election Day 2010 than it was when Obama took office--representing a substantial drag on Democrats in 2010.

 

Comments
Jon:

Come on, using such loaded partisan terms -

"political campaign approach", "activist agenda", "misinterpreted their 2008 victory as a mandate for social change", "overly lauded despite having a thin record of actual accomplishments"

I know Mr. Lombardo's bio says that he served as a Romney flack, but I think Mr. Lombardo's future columns should be explicitly labeled (R) as pollster.com does with partisan polls.

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RAG2:

"Don't bite off more than you can chew?" How does one know how much is too much? Besides, Presidents NEVER get everything they ask for, so they have to ask for a lot. It's called "bargaining". If you want $10, you ask for $15 or $20; if you're prepared to give $10, you offer $5 or $7.

In any case, Republicans were NEVER going to agree--even years "down the road"--to the reforms needed to make health-care affordable and available to everybody--because that would disrupt the private profit-seeking insurance companies' monopoly on HC, and violate the GOP's "free-market" fundamentalism. Universal HC cannot be acheive without some increase in gov't involvement.

By the way, if you think Republicans ALSO want Universal HC, but simply disagree on how, why is it then that the GOP leadership has made no attempt to coalesce behind a specific, comprehensive bill that they've submitted to the Congressional Budget Office, so they can show it to be as effective in lowering the ranks of the uninsured and HC cost as the Dem plans? Only people who oppose something entirely would refuse to get behind an alternative!

Universal HC, like civil rights in the 1960's, is a fight that HAS to be fought--no matter what the political cost. The alternative is to let our current HC system collapse in the next 5 to 10 years.

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RAG2:

PS. By the way, the bill that's likely to reach BO's desk is likely to be a weak bill, requiring additional legislation "down the road" no matter what--just like the 1957 Civil Rights Act was essentially a toothless bill which nevertheless paved the way for a much more comprehensive CR Act in 1964--the one everybody remembers. This is just the beginning. The fact is, if BO wants any meaningful HC reform this year, he HAD to start big in order to see what he could get.

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Bharat Krishnan:

Good stuff

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