Articles and Analysis


Winston: Drop in Polls Threatens Obama Agenda

David Winston is President of the Winston Group, a strategic planning, communications, and survey research firm. He was formerly Director of Planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich and is presently an election analyst for CBS.

This week, President Obama finds himself facing his first public opinion crisis as several different national surveys showed his job approval below 50% over the past 10 days. The Marist and Quinnipiac surveys both put his job approval at 46%. CNN had it at 48% while Ipsos/McClatchy had it at 49%. But it was the Gallup daily tracking, which finally dipped below 50%, that pushed Press Secretary Robert Gibbs to an uncalled for denigration of the respected polling organization, comparing their results to a "six-year-old with a crayon."

Why is this important? Gibbs testy response isn't. But the president's downward spiral certainly has serious implications for both his ability to govern and to enact his policy agenda. Simply put, if a Presidential job approval is below 50%, a governing majority coalition does not exist and without a governing majority, controversial policies like health care and cap and trade are relegated to the uphill climb of minority status.

But presidential polling numbers can be worse than simply slipping below that 50% mark. When a President's job approval is under water, meaning more people disapprove than approve of the job he is doing, that's when every alarm bell in the West Wing ought to go off. President Obama is dangerously close to needing a life jacket.

In the CNN survey, 48% of those surveyed approved of his job performance, while 50% disapproved. Ipsos/McClatchy had it at 49-49, and both Marist and Quinnipiac had it at 46-44.

If Obama's numbers continue to slide, his policy agenda is at serious risk. Don't think for one moment that members of the House and Senate don't pay attention to these national polls. They do, especially those who find themselves in competitive races. Equally important, their own internal state or district polls will likely also have a presidential job approval question. Whether Obama is under 50% or under water back home could and, in many cases, will impact their voting behavior in D.C.

It's premature to suggest that it's time the Obama team break out the life boats, but contrary to Mr. Gibbs assertions, numbers do matter. They will determine, in part, whether his legislative agenda succeeds this year and survives the elections next year.



Bill Clinton was heavily criticized for the perception of making policy decisions based on poll numbers.

George W. Bush, for the most part, disregarded polls, and his numbers suffered as a result, particularly his last 4 years. So it seems to me that you're damned if you follow the polls but damned if you don't. There's no way to please everyone all of the time.

Our government was constructed to resist the immediate passions of the people. That's why the president serves 4 years and senators 6. We don't have a parliamentary system where leaders can be recalled during periods of unpopularity.



Obama's dropping polls are simply a sign that too many Americans have a short memory and are impatient. I am not saying he will be a good or great president, but he entered office in a sea of turmoil with a huge deficit, the bailouts started under the previous president, Afghanistan had been ignored and Iraq had been the war of choice for the previous regime. The drop in polls show that a majority of Americans have little or no patience, amnhesia. All I can say is that we live in a country where more people worry about how to pay for health care reform than how to pay for a war we shouldn't have waged. As for trying the terrorists in NYC, all I have to say is that Kali Sheikh Muhommed and the others were not tried in military or civilian court until now. If Bush and cheney were the great heroes against terrorism they boasted to be, why has it taken this long to get the suspects into a court of any sort? For those of you who are in the middle or left of ctr, I would continually remind your friends, family and potential voters of these things. There is a lot of misinformation out there, and conservatives are pros at marketing this stuff. We just have to fight a little harder.



Making decisions based on poll numbers is an advantage and disadvantage. I think the uncertainty of what kind of health care bill we get has gone on so long that at this point Obama can sign a bill into law, and implement that after signing. This is not an issue where you really can look at the polls. If you are a progressive Democrat you must pass a health bill. Losing is not an option. After we pass the bill than Obama can work on some middle class tax cuts, fair but tougher immigration policies which will be reasonable, but will not be good enough for the anti immigration hawks in the GOP. Obama has to spend 2010 into moving more to the center on many issues, before he has no choice to move to the ctr, if the GOP takes back the house. For instance Bill Clinton's assault weapons ban was bad PR in 1994. I don't think Obama should do that.




This is an interesting argugment, but I'm curious about why you think Obama's low numbers will hurt him, when his high numbers didn't help him much from March to August? The more I look at the entirety of the polls the more I see that there is only one person who can move [opinion] numbers right now: Obama.

Oddly, the variability in support for his policies has been greatly influenced by the framing and question wording, which leads me to think there are some strategic concerns for the WH to consider, but I don't see the entirety of the polls signaling a threat to Obama's agenda.

While Obama's job approval is declining, his favorability numbers are not. Also, given that Obama has not completed a year of governance yet, do we really think that "his" issues will be ignored/stalled for three more years by Congress? Just curious about your thoughts.

David Wilson



I agree that the assault-weapons ban was a major factor in Clinton's losing Congress, but it was necessary when gun crimes were at record levels, and it worked: Crime plummeted in subsequent year. Going back further, the passage of sweeping civil-rights and voting-rights legislation in the 1960's delivered the South to the Republicans and is still costing Democrats to this day; but once again, it was necessary and worth it: We're a better society for all those laws. Health-care reform, and even Afghanistan policy are the same: When faced with a crisis, we have to do what is RIGHT when it matters, no matter what the political cost. WE MUST THINK OF THE NEXT GENERATION, NOT THE NEXT ELECTION.

That's one reason I like Obama. He pays attention to public opinion polls, but he isn't a slave to them. Clinton paid too much attention to public opinion, Bush too little. I thought Obama's Afghan policy was brilliant: splitting the difference between two options where compromise seemed impossible.

Finally, if the economy improves even a little bit (say, it goes down to 7%) by 2010 or 2012, he--and his "agenda" will be very popular--and his controversial actions like rescuing banks and car companies will be seen as bold leadership. It's a long time since we've had a president willing to make difficult choices which can onlhy be popular in the long term. As for health care, once a bill passes--and one will--Democratic politicians will be able to clearly explain to voters what's in it and what isn't, and be in a better place to counter GOP fear-mongering. IN ANY CASE, A PARTY THAT'S SEEN AS ABLE TO GET ITS ACT TOGETHER AND GOVERN GETS REWARDED; a party that can't get anything done gets punished.


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