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Friday, December 11, 2009

Afghanistan, Oslo, and Extramarital Affairs

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel opined about “public support” following President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan last week:

Mr. Obama missed the opportunity to rally public support and to invest the more responsible wing of his party in his Afghan surge -- in the process granting himself cover to see his strategy through to the end. As missed opportunities go, this was big.

I’m not sure about Strassel’s basis for the conclusion that Obama “missed the opportunity” to rally public support. If anything, the available data suggest that, in fact, Obama has managed to develop public support for his policies in Afghanistan.

Our post-speech Gallup poll showed a majority of Americans (51%) supported his newly announced policy. That may not be a rally. But it does look like an increase in support compared to previous polls. And he did manage to generate support from both Democrats and Republicans -- not the usual state of affairs.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll found 64% favoring the president’s plan. (One should take into account the wording of the CNN question, which is a trend from an earlier CNN/USA Today/Gallup question asked about Iraq. The question doesn't mention the timetable, and gives the respondents an explicit reason to support the plan. Here's the wording: "Regardless of how you feel about the war in general, do you favor or oppose President Obama's plan to send about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan in an attempt to stabilize the situation there?" )

There's more. A poll from The New York Times/CBS News that just came out finds 51% support the president's plan to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This question, like the CNN question, doesn't mention a timetable. But it also doesn't give respondents an explicit rationale for sending in more troops. (Here's the NYT/CBS wording: "As you may know, Barack Obama announced that an additional 30,000 U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan in the coming months. Do you approve or disapprove of sending additional troops to Afghanistan?") And still another poll conducted by Quinnipiac found that 58% of Americans support President Obama’s “decision to send in 30,000 troops."

Bottom line: At least a majority of Americans appear, at this point, to support Obama's decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, I'm asked about the reaction of the American public to President Obama's speech and acceptance of his Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. Pundits and other public observers have already begun weighing in. I told a reporter recently that sometimes we are surprised at how things play out. We do know that well under half of Americans think that Obama deserved the Peace Prize (a result recently replicated in a Quinnipiac poll). About half of Americans in our Gallup poll said that they were personally glad that he received it.

Still, let's see what happens. Our Gallup Daily tracking of presidential job approval has been offline for two nights, in part because of a blizzard in the Midwest. We'll begin to get a picture over the next few days of any possible impact of this event on Obama's job approval rating.

There have been more examples in the press recently of presumed extramarital affairs. Of course, in case you missed it, there’s Tiger Woods. We don’t know for absolute sure that Woods had an affair. All we have is his statement that he “...let my family down and I regret those transgressions with all of my heart. I have not been true to my values and the behavior my family deserves.” Plus reports of an, apparently, ever-increasing number of women other than his wife have been linked to Tiger.

There's Sen. Max Baucus from the state of Montana who is quite open about living together with his significant other without being married. (The Baucus issue has come to light because his romantic partner was nominated to be a U.S. attorney). A Baucus representative said that the affair began after Baucus was separated from his wife. Other U.S. senators, such as Nevada’s John Ensign and Louisiana’s David Vitter have been implicated in news stories about straying from the marital bed. Not to mention governors such as New York’s Eliot Spitzer and South Carolina’s Mark Sanford.

At any rate, all of this publicity makes it a good time to reiterate our consistent findings that the the American people -- even in this day and age -- continue to think extramarital affairs are morally wrong. This is not to say that Americans don’t recognize that extramarital affairs take place (although probably at a much lower level than they think. The best scientific evidence puts the incidence at 15-18% of married adults who have ever had an affair.) At any rate, over 9 out of 10 Americans steadfastly say that affairs are morally unacceptable, about the same as say this about polygamy.

Speaking of members of Congress and senators. Both of these professions have scored near the bottom of the list when we ask Americans to rate professions on the basis of their honesty and ethics. Members of Congress and senators are down next to car salespeople, lawyers, HMO managers, and stock brokers. State governors don't do well, either. A radio interviewer asked me why these ratings are so low. There are potentially many reasons why the public is so negative about the honesty and ethics of their elected representatives. But certainly the continuing news stories of these representatives having affairs can't help their image.

On a different note, many senators are apparently planning to cancel their Christmas vacations in order to continue to work on the healthcare bill. As The New York Times reports about one such instance: "Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, said Wednesday that he and his wife had given up on making it back home for Christmas."

No doubt many of these senators believe that they deserve the approbation of their constituents back home for their sacrifices and hard work. One problem. The legislation being labored over so diligently is not exactly something Americans are desperate to have passed. One new poll showed only a little more than one-third of Americans now favor the idea of a new healthcare reform bill. Our latest Gallup poll showed 44% approving. We're updating our measure this weekend. Check back next week for the results.

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