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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Steve Kroft, 60 Minutes, Barack Obama and Polls

President Obama was on the CBS program 60 Minutes this past Sunday night, interviewed in the Map Room at the White House by Steve Kroft. Much of the interview dealt with Afghanistan. At one point, we saw the following exchange:

Most Americans right now don't believe this war is worth fighting. And most of the people in your party don't believe this is a war worth fighting.


Why did you go ahead?

Because I think it's the right thing to do. And that's my job. If I was worried about what polled well -- there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn't have done this year.

I'm puzzling over the evidence base for Kroft's statement that “most Americans right now don’t believe this war is worth fighting.”

Kroft’s own CBS News/New York Times poll from Dec. 4-8 asked Americans: “Do you think the U.S. is doing the right thing by fighting the war in Afghanistan now, or should the U.S. not be involved in Afghanistan now?” The answer: 49% said “right thing”, 39% not be involved.

This particular question does not provide a ringing endorsement of the war. But certainly a plurality appear to support it. This does not appear to fit with the statement that “Most Americans right now don’t believe this war is worth fighting.”

In that same CBS News/New York Times poll, 51% of Americans approve Obama’s plan “. . . that an additional 30,000 troops will be sent to Afghanistan in the coming months.” Forty-three percent disapprove. Here again, at least a plurality seem to be on board with what Obama is doing.

In a recent Gallup poll conducted after Obama’s West Point speech, 62% of Americans say that sending troops to Afghanistan was the right thing for the U.S. to do. Gallup’s classic “mistake” question shows that 60% say that it was not a mistake to send military forces to Afghanistan.

There are, I should point out, some questions asked in other ways that do show a tilt against the war. The latest CNN/Opinion Research poll (Dec. 2-3) shows a rough split, 46% to 51% when Americans are asked if they favor or oppose the war in Afghanistan. (This represented, however, a shift from CNN's late October, early November poll in which the ratio was 40% favor and 58% oppose). Going back in time, an ABC News/Washington Post poll phrased thus, “All in all, considering the costs to the United States versus the benefits to the United States, do you think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting, or not” found a 44% yes and 52% no result. This question, however, was from Nov. 12-15, before Obama's surge announcement. It also explicitly reminded Americans of the costs involved.

Overall, Obama’s current position on sending more troops to Afghanistan and thus continuing the war does not enjoy an overwhelming mandate. But most recent polls show more support than opposition. It seems to me that Kroft clearly overstated the evidence available from the preponderance of current data in the preamble to his interrogatory to Obama about the war.

Obama was not well enough equipped with the latest poll data to be able to refute Kroft's premise. Instead, the president dropped back to a more typical defense: “If I was worried about what polled well -- there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn't have done this year.”

If this type of statement sounds familiar, it's because we heard it often from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. These two early and often reiterated their disdain for those who would govern by paying attention to polls.

As reflected by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs' statements last week, we may be seeing some building defensiveness within the walls of the White House. Reminds me of a head football coach who gets testy when reporters keep badgering him about his win-loss record or when he doesn't like the things they write. Administrations can be just as irritable.

Let me point out -- again -- that polls do nothing more than represent the American people’s views and beliefs. Thus, President Obama was, in essence, saying: “If I was worried about what the American people thought -- there are a whole bunch of things we wouldn’t have done this year.”

Many leaders in Obama’s position convince themselves that while they have the best interests of the American people at heart, they basically know better than the public what should be done. This is a fairly standard approach to representative democracy, exemplified by Edmund Burke’s famous quote: "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

Americans themselves don't seem to agree. Seventy-three percent say they have a great deal/fair amount of trust in the “American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system about the issues facing our country.” Sixty-one percent say they have a great deal/fair amount in the executive branch headed by the president. (A much smaller 45% say they have a great deal/fair amount of confidence in the legislative branch, “consisting of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.”)

So the people have more trust and confidence in their own ability to make judgments about the issues facing the country than they do in the president. I think they would like their leaders to pay attention to what they think and believe.

Actually, the president is doing OK when it comes to being in touch with public opinion in terms of Afghanistan right now -- as we have seen.

His recent efforts on the economy/job front are clearly in line with Americans’ priorities.

We also now have a majority of Americans who favor the U.S. being involved in a climate change treaty. (So, when Obama flies to Copenhagen this week he will be on track if he agrees with the need for such a treaty.)

Obama is more out of sync when it come to his push for major healthcare reform. Less than half of Americans say they want a new healthcare plan.

President Obama recently held a “jobs forum” to hear from a wide variety of CEOs, experts, and others. He then flew to Allentown, Pa., so that he could “take the temperature” of the common people of that town.

As I’ve noted, all of this is exemplary. But unscientific. Why not in the same exact sense spend a day pouring over public opinion research data? No difference in concept from a jobs forum or from a trip to Allentown. But a lot of difference in the quality of data provided. (Unfortunately, video of the president pouring over polling data is not quite as attention-getting as shaking hands with workers at Allentown Metal Works.)

There is little doubt that the White House, in reality, actually does pay a lot of attention to public opinion research. When it comes to public pronouncements, I hate to see the president dropping back on to the old mantra that he doesn’t pay attention to polls.


CynthiaE said...
December 17, 2009 at 4:09 PM  

I think there's a point worth reiterating here about the variabliity in quality of public opinion polls. President Obama's comment could be interpreted in light of the variability Dr. Newport points out in public opinion about the Afghan War. An untrained eye may have trouble sorting through the good polls from the leading ones. And, thus, conclude that polling, in fact, doesn't matter. Or at least doesn't always present precise findings of public opinion on important matters of public policy. It's important for our policy makers to make the effort to understand the science in order to best understand the true will of the people. I can think of no better place to start than with Gallup's solid data and science.

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