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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

As Obama Speaks to the Nation, Advice From the People

President Obama goes on national television Tuesday night. It will be his first address from the Oval Office. The topic will be the BP oil spill and, more generally, energy.

The oil spill has dominated the president’s agenda this week. This is clearly a response in part to commentary that the president needs to ratchet up the perceptions that he is involved, that he cares, and that he is doing something about it.

The weekend USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that a slight majority of Americans give the president poor ratings for his handling of the spill. We previously found that Obama’s job approval rating on handling the spill was 40%. And there is the issue of the fusillade of criticism Obama has received on this issue from certain quarters, underscoring the political fact of life that any weakness, issue, or problem is fair game for one’s opponents.

Public opinion data point to some cautionary notes before the president goes too far in making it seem that the oil spill is the only item on the administration’s agenda.

For one thing, Obama’s overall job approval rating has not taken a nosedive since the spill. I have spent a good deal of time in recent days going over recent Obama job approval data with my Gallup colleagues -- analyzing the numbers in some detail.

Obama’s current approval numbers remain at the low point of his administration so far. The trajectory of Obama’s ratings have, however, shown an interesting pattern. His ratings actually rose a bit just after the spill. Then, more recently they settled back down and reached -- in two of the last three weeks -- the lowest weekly averages of his administration.

From a big picture perspective, Obama currently sits at a position that is little different from where he was just before the spill. And, his ratings are edging back up. His three day averages this week have been 48% on Monday and 49% today (Tuesday).

There may have been some delayed effect of the spill on the president’s job approval numbers. But it was not a major effect as these things go. His current low point is no more than a point or two lower than where his ratings were prior to the oil spill.

Obama’s job approval rating is not outstanding regardless of trends, to be sure. And we also don't know just what is affecting his approval rating. One cannot establish causality beyond a shadow of a doubt when it comes to a president’s job approval ratings. Generally, there are so many things swirling around in the political environment that it is difficult to disentangle exactly what is affecting what. But the current data certainly do not show evidence of a direct, major, massive hit as a direct result of the oil spill.

It might also be important for President Obama to keep in mind that the oil spill is not the nation’s most important problem at the moment. Our weekend poll found that the economy continues to be most likely to be mentioned by Americans, when asked to name the MIP, followed by jobs/unemployment. Taken together, almost half of Americans mention one of these two problems. Only 18% of Americans spontaneously mention the oil spill/cleaning up from natural disasters. And almost as many, 14%, say the top problem facing the country is poor leadership.

There is little doubt that Obama’s advisers have been urging him to take more visible action on the oil spill. But the data suggest that he needs to be careful not to focus so much on this issue that he is perceived by Americans as taking his eye off what remains their top concern -- the economy.

The data would suggest that the president could fruitfully make efforts to tie the oil spill into the economy. In this, he would be generally in touch with public opinion. Our weekend poll shows that huge majorities of Americans believe that the spill will have a negative economic impact on the U.S. economy. And that food and gas prices will increase as a result. If Obama focuses tonight on the impact of the oil spill on the U.S. economy (as well as, of course, the disastrous environmental impact), he would be in sync with American public opinion.

Someone raised the issue with me the other day about authenticity in leaders.

Obama has no doubt been told that his more cerebral approach to the oil spill may be hurting him. And that a more emotional approach as we would have expected from a more volatile personality like Bill Clinton (or Teddy Roosevelt) would resonate better with the American public. Indeed, a highly publicized bit of data from our weekend poll shows that over 7 out of 10 Americans say that Obama should be tougher with BP. Obama famously attempted to get verbally tough last week in an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, saying "We talk to these folks because they potentially have the best answers, so I know whose ass to kick." We would expect to hear some fairly strong words in the speech tonight -- although probably not profanity.

But, as Al Gore learned in 2000, attempting to shift one's personality can be uncomfortable and has the potential to backfire.

At Gallup, one of our cardinal principles is that workers should be encouraged to "Soar with Your Strengths," as the late Gallup Chairman Don Clifton said in the title to his influential book. In other words, maximize one’s strengths and don’t spend all of your time attempting to remedy one’s weaknesses and/or to be someone you are not.


bondwooley said...
June 15, 2010 at 12:11 PM  

While the oil spill is a catastrophe, I do agree with the author that it is not the only or necessarily the most important issue facing us. And, personally, I hope that Obama doesn't use the Oval Office address to raise his approval ratings among the segment that is crying out for him to become hysterical just so that they can believe that he "feels their pain."

On that note, readers might enjoy a quick satire video on the outrage over Obama's lack of outrage:

Too Chill for the Spill

Anonymous said...
June 15, 2010 at 11:34 PM  

The so called president is A shameful disgrace to our Great country, He is full of himself and the position he holds. Cant act when needed and acts to slow after the fact. Most of washingtons polititions should be jailed.

Mrs. America said...
June 17, 2010 at 1:01 AM  

I am a sincere independent, not Democrat, not Republican, not a Tea-Partier. I honestly feel that the cable news personalities have been WAY TOO hard on Obama. He didn't cause the oil spill, BP did! He did not design and construct the MMS, past president's did! I watched as 4 of the top BIG OIL CEO's stated, "if this blowout had happened to us, the same result would be unfolding---we don't know how to stop the leak, and our clean up efforts are limited." SO THERE WE is that Obama's fault?

I think the President gave a great speech, as he always does. He's in charge, and I have great confidence in his ability! If you would have polled me,I would have given him a 98%.

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