It's worth noting that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs this week explicitly evoked polling to bolster a point about healthcare reform.
MR. GIBBS: Well, look, again, I don't want to go through the entire speech. Look, I think that what the President discussed yesterday about this, and I think what you heard people say over the weekend from administration officials on the Sunday shows, was if you look at -- there's clearly a caricature of a health reform bill that is viewed differently by the public than when you break out its component parts. Right? The Kaiser Foundation did a poll that showed, for instance, the number of people that are more likely to support healthcare reform if they knew tax credits were in there for small businesses is 73 percent; 62 percent of those polled that opposed healthcare reform would be more likely to support it if they knew that was in there.
This has become -- the example I use a lot is we spent a lot of time talking about so-called death panels, right, that time after time after time after time have been disproven that are in the bill. So obviously the legislation became a caricature of its component parts. The degree that that's a communications failing, I think people here at the White House and others would certainly take responsibility for that.
It’s certainly good to see that Americans’ opinions as measured by polls are part of the discussion at the White House.
Note Gibb’s reference to administration officials’ comments over the weekend on the Sunday shows. This is a fairly direct reference to the common practice of distributing talking points to those who speak on behalf of an administration. In this instance, the talking points dealt with the White House strategy on handling opposition to healthcare reform legislation. The apparently approved response: Assume that opposition is based on the messy process of developing the legislation or the failure to understand what is included in the bill. In other words, the public's view of the legislation is a caricature of the actual bill.
Along these same lines. In his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, President Obama said the following vis a vis healthcare reform efforts: ". . . with all the lobbying and horse-trading, the process left most Americans wondering, 'What’s in it for me?'"
This comment reinforces the same talking point: The public’s lack of robust support for healthcare reform legislation is based on misunderstanding engendered by the debate, the process, and the strong forces arrayed against the bill.
We don’t necessarily see it in the data. When we ask Americans why they oppose healthcare legislation, the two dominant responses are: “cost” and “too much government involvement.” Neither of these objection categories reflect -- at least not directly -- a failure to understand the specifics of what is in the bill. Or personal self-interest. The objections appear to be more global in nature.
Speaking of the SOTU. Our Gallup poll editorial team spent a good deal of time reviewing the president's Wednesday night speech in the context of public opinion. We distilled 22 major points made by the president. We looked at public opinion relating to each.
In general, I would say that on a point-by-point basis the president’s speech was in tune with public opinion.
Some examples of a synchronicity of Obama’s points and public opinion cited in our review:
- Dislike of the bank bailout
- Jobs as the number one focus
- Value of small business
- Value of alternative sources of energy
- Building new nuclear plants
- Focus on lowering the federal deficit
- Rampant distrust in government
- Taking action to end the outsized influence of lobbyists
- Removing troops from Iraq
- Repealing the law that denies gay Americans the right to openly serve in the military
- The need for immigration reform
- The great value of the economic stimulus plan
- The economy is growing again
- Climate change
- Healthcare reform
- The recent Supreme Court decision
Still. All in all, one can advance the argument that the president’s address was fairly well “poll-tested” -- in terms of specifics.
Of course, we have the same issue here that we have with the healthcare bill. The Obama administration argues that the public likes the point-by-point specifics of the healthcare legislation, but they are either unaware of these specifics, or their existence has been obscured by caricature. It's possible the same process may occur vis a vis the president's SOTU addresss. Agreement on many of the point-by-point specifics. But overall negative reaction due to broader, more general concerns.
Stay tuned. We will begin to get a good sense for the impact of the speech on presidential job approval -- if any -- over the weekend and into the new week.