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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Obama's State of the Union Address, Bounces and Public Opinion

No sign of a bump in President Obama’s job approval ratings so far from Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. We will report a more detailed analysis early next week at Of course, history has already told us not to expect much of a bounce. We do know from a one-night USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Wednesday night that only about a third of Americans said they watched the speech (another 28% said they heard news coverage of the speech). Naturally enough, more Democrats than Republicans claimed to have watched. And naturally enough again, Democrats rated it way more positively than did Republicans.

Short-term bounces are interesting to note, but the important issue will be the degree to which the speech affects the president’s positioning in the eyes of Americans from a long-term perspective. Unfortunately, that's an issue we will never understand perfectly. The longer out from the speech we go, the higher the number of potential variables that can have an impact on the president’s approval rating. The State of the Union address may well be an important factor in providing context for Americans’ views of the president as time unfolds, but one that is very difficult to measure.

The first substantive issue in Obama’s speech was the economy -- as it should have been from the perspective of the average Americans. As I’ve noted, economic concerns are by far the issues most likely to be named by Americans when asked to identify the most important problems facing the nation today.

Obama stated in his address that “. . . the stock market has come roaring back. Corporate profits are up. The economy is growing again.” To some degree these positive assessments comport with American public opinion. Economic confidence is in fact up, particularly when compared to one or two years ago.

Obama did not include jobs and employment in his list of aspects of the economy that have improved. He and his speechwriters instead cleverly transitioned into a focus on the need to improve the job situation without explicitly noting that it's still not in very good shape.  (Gallup’s Job Creation Index is at +8, which is certainly in positive territory, but nowhere near where it was in early 2008 before the impact of the recession was fully felt.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How Will Obama's State of the Union Address Fit With Public Opinion?

People ask me what President Obama should address in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

One way to answer that question is to go straight down the line from our January "Most Important Problem" update. If we do, then here are the issues facing the nation that Americans think are most pressing, and presumably the ones Obama should address:

Unemployment and jobs. Not much chance President Obama is going to miss this topic. Almost all accounts indicate that Obama will highlight the continuing jobs problem and the impact it is having on the country in his speech. In doing so, Obama will be right in sync with American public opinion -- at least as far as the general topic is concerned. Jobs comes out on top in every question I have seen recently that asks Americans to name the top priorities for the government. Our latest Gallup Job Creation Index figures are certainly better than last year at this time, but still not great -- and not back to where they were in January 2008. Just how Obama proposes to accelerate the creation of new jobs in the country will, of course, be the most interesting issue to follow in his speech. Indications are that Obama will talk about the need for more government spending and investment to stimulate job creation. Since the public also considers government to be a major problem (see below) and since the public has very mixed attitudes about the proper role of government, this figures to be a pivotal point of his speech.

The economy in general. This is part and parcel of the focus on jobs. Obama will certainly highlight economic indicators that show the economy is picking up. And there are some. Our Gallup Economic Confidence Index has certainly become more positive and is now as high as we have measured it since January 2008, when we began tracking it daily. But how best to continue to accelerate the economic improvement will be a real key to the speech and how the public reacts to it.

Healthcare. Here we have another tricky issue for Obama. The House voted to repeal Obama’s signature healthcare bill last week. That will not become law since it will by all accounts die in the Senate. The House is thus back in a position to begin to attempt to chip away at provisions of the healthcare bill. Obama will no doubt tout the bill as a major accomplishment of his administration. Americans are ambivalent about the bill, with no clear indication that even a majority think it was a good idea. Obama may acknowledge that the healthcare bill needs some modifying. If he does that, he will be in sync with public opinion. Americans clearly agree with the idea of making changes in the bill.

The federal budget deficit. Looming ahead is the need for Congress to lift the ceiling on the national debt. The American public wants that ceiling lifted only if agreement is reached on how to reduce the deficit going forward. This is an area of ambivalence on the part of Americans. The public wants agreement on reducing the deficit, yet doesn’t want cuts in major spending programs. This will be a key to Obama’s speech.

Dissatisfaction with government. We know that Americans want more bipartisan cooperation in Washington. We know that Americans think that government as it currently functions is essentially broken. To the degree that Obama preaches cooperation in D.C., he will be in sync with American public opinion. He can, to an extent, most likely get away with criticizing Congress in this speech, calling for cooperation rather than bickering. On the other hand, Americans are leery about using government as the instrument to solve the nation’s problems. Obama will, by all accounts, propose new government spending programs to help the economy. This involvement of the government in the effort to create jobs may run into some philosophic trouble with Americans, many of whom are leery of too much big government. How the president finesses this will be another key to his speech.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

What Do Americans Want Their Representatives To Do About Healthcare Legislation?

If members of the House of Representatives look to the American public for guidance on what to do about the healthcare reform law, what would they find?

First, they would understand that the law is controversial. The American public is divided on the law, with a tilt toward opposition or negative reaction to it. It is rare to find any polling, no matter how the question is worded, that shows a majority supporting the bill.

It has been pointed out that some of the opposition to the bill is based on a belief that it does not go far enough. The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, for example, found that 50% oppose the bill (wording: " . . . changes to the health care system that have been enacted by (Congress) and (the Obama administration)?").  Dividing those up based on further questioning shows that 35% say they oppose it because it goes too far, and 13% because it does not go far enough. It's not entirely clear what these descriptive terms (e.g., "goes too far" and "does not go far enough") mean when pollsters (including Gallup) use them.  Jon Cohen of the Washington Post, for example, shared with me data showing that the plurality of the 13% who say the bill doesn't go far enough are independents, not Democrats as might be expected. 

Most polling shows that these responses are strongly partisan, with Republicans opposed and Democrats in favor.

So House members imbued with the desire to reflect public opinion face the challenge of dealing with a public that is quite mixed in its sentiments about the bill -- with no strong, majority feelings in either direction.

(I am asked by reporters if there has been any change in support since the bill passed. There have been fluctuations from survey to survey measured by some organizations who track the bill. But I don't see evidence of a straight linear trend in either direction. See here for one example).

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Attribution of Cause and the Events in Tucson

One obvious outcome of the Tucson shootings this past weekend has been the search for explanations. This search is, in part, a reflection of a basic human tendency to want to find explanations for high profile and unusual occurrences.

President Obama took note of this fact of life in his Tucson speech Wednesday night:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations -- to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system.

Natural disasters -- such as the Haiti earthquake or the current Brisbane, Australia flooding -- have naturalistic, essentially random explanations. These events occur essentially beyond direct human control or intervention. That doesn’t mean that people don’t want to understand why they occur -- in a scientific sense. But the pressure to immediately seek explanations for natural disasters may be less imperative.

The need to find explanations for tragic events caused directly by humans is more pressing. These events involve deviant behavior well outside the structure of what is normatively acceptable in a culture, creating an apparent strong need to find some explanations for how and why they occur.

Tragic events caused directly by humans also generate anger and frustration -- activating a human drive to displace that anger, often aggressively, onto whatever targets are available.

There are two broad categories of explanations for an individual's behavior -- intrinsic, dispositional versus extrinsic, situational. Social psychologists have found that humans tend to attribute causality for an individual's actions to dispositional factors -- that is, to make the assumption that the reasons for the actions reside within the individual him or herself.

This is exactly what the data show has occurred in the case of the deadly shootings in Tucson -- as far as the general public is concerned.

Our Gallup research conducted after the shootings shows that Americans do not believe that inflammatory rhetoric was a major factor in the shootings and that Americans do not think that stricter gun control laws would have prevented the tragedy. A poll by CBS News showed much the same thing. Americans, in short, appear to be focused on intrinsic attribution -- that the shootings occurred because of factors relating to the individual gunman involved. This is exactly what the existing literature on attribution of cause would have predicted.

This has not been the case in terms of professional commentators and pundits. These individuals have tended to look for extrinsic, situational explanations for the heinous actions of the gunman in Tucson.

As soon as the event in Tucson occurred, the army of commentators -- who derive value from being able to speculate, discuss, put in context, and explain events -- began focusing on whatever situational explanations were available. These have included most specifically the causal role of the “level of political discourse and rhetoric” in the U.S. The thesis that inflammatory rhetoric was a factor that led to the shootings was rapidly advanced and soon widely distributed and discussed. (Of course, as predictably happens, the thesis inevitably found its antithesis -- reaction from other commentators that the initial thesis was incorrect. And so forth.)

Why have commentators and pundits tended to follow the opposite course from the average American and to look for explanations in broad, situational factors? In part this may reflect the reality that internal attribution of cause is a less compelling story line. Tying the shootings to broad, national trends provides a much larger stage upon which to discuss the events, in essence broadening the discussion to include the big picture issues which provide the majority of material for today's commentary and punditry. The broad focus also allows for the importation of partisanship into the discussion -- a not incidental factor given that many commentators and pundits derive value from playing to partisan or ideological audiences.

In general, in my experience, the American people usually function as an anchor or brake or reality check on rapidly developing conventional wisdom or instant analysis. This appears to be happening in this situation. Taken as a group, Americans appear hesitant to accept the hypothesis that the shootings in Tucson are mostly a reflection of the nature of political discourse in the country or even on the lack of stringent gun control laws. As more becomes known about the alleged killer and his background, the public's views may change, of course. But for the moment, Americans are being cautious in accepting situational explanations for the shootings.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Is Congress Listening to the American People?

Elected representatives are clearly talking more and more these days about listening to the American people.

This is particularly true for the new Speaker of the House, John Boehner. As Politico put it in their Wednesday morning edition: “John Boehner will take the Speaker’s gavel with a commitment to restoring the House as an institution focused on listening to the American people.” The Washington Post reported that Boehner told reporters outside his apartment on Wednesday morning: "The sun is out, and the American people are in charge." And it’s not just Boehner. President Obama also stated after the November elections that it was time to listen more to the American people.

Exactly how our representatives are going to set about doing a better job of listening to the people is not entirely clear at this point. No politician, to my knowledge, has gone the extra mile and said that he or she has a commitment to focusing on survey data measuring what the American people want their representatives to do. No representatives, to my knowledge, have publicly referenced the hiring of pollsters to review, synthesize, and analyze poll data on the priorities and positions of the American people.

Presumably elected representatives have more qualitative methods in mind as they attempt to "listen to the American people" -- the usual reading of constituent mail, going "back to the district" and having town hall meetings, and talking to people back home. None of this is systematic or scientific, of course. And without science or systems the interpretation of what the American people want their Congress to do can be open to differences in interpretation.

We have an example of this in front of us at the moment. New House Speaker Boehner has moved quickly to schedule a vote on repealing the controversial new healthcare reform law which took effect last March. The new bill -- officially cited as ‘‘Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act’’ -- was introduced in the House Rules Committee and will be voted on next week.

Boehner and others have argued that this action is listening to the will of the American people. As Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah put it: "House Republicans are listening to the American people and are rightly moving forward to dismantle a law that is a threat to liberty itself." House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was quoted as saying Thursday morning on CBS' The Early Show that "most Americans don't like the health care bill and know there's a better way."

It is true that the American public’s views of healthcare reform legislation have tilted more negative than positive, as I reviewed here. The two latest polls on the healthcare law that I am aware of show a 54% to 43% opposition (CNN/Opinion Research, based on this question wording: "As you may know, a bill that makes major changes to the country's health care system became law earlier this year. Based on what you have read or heard about that legislation, do you generally favor or generally oppose it?") and a 42% favorable and 41% unfavorable view of the law (Kaiser Family Foundation poll in December using this question wording "As you may know, a new health reform bill was signed into law earlier this year. Given what you know about the new health reform law, do you have a generally favorable or generally unfavorable opinion of it?").

We will have a read Friday on a specific question asking about repealing the bill. Previous research has used complex question wordings on the repeal issue, giving respondents a number of alternatives such as repealing part of the bill, repealing all of the bill, and so forth. Our Gallup question is more straightforward and mimics what's in front of the House now; i.e., a straight up or down on a bill that would repeal the entire healthcare act.

No matter what these results show, however, I think it's fair to say that repealing the healthcare reform legislation is not Americans' top priority for Congress. Nor has it been.

Dave Barry, the satirical humorist, picked up on this point in his annual month-by-month analysis of the news events of the past year. Barry reviews the political scene of January 2010 thusly:

Every poll shows that the major concerns of the American people are federal spending, the exploding deficit, and -- above all -- jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs: This is what the public is worried about. In a word, the big issue is: jobs. So the Obama administration, displaying the keen awareness that has become its trademark, decides to focus like a laser on: health-care reform. The centerpiece of this effort is a historic bill that will either a) guarantee everybody excellent free health care, or b) permit federal bureaucrats to club old people to death. Nobody knows which, because nobody has read the bill, which in printed form has the same mass as a UPS truck.

Point well taken. Healthcare reform was not the top priority for the American public when it was enacted last year, and its repeal is most likely not the top priority for Americans, as far as we can see, at this point.

The "Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act" bill has virtually no chance of becoming law, given a Democratic Senate and a Democrat in the White House. So the bill is widely regarded as a symbolic effort on the part of the Republicans.

How the public views this largely symbolic effort, however, is unknown. It's possible that it may do little to increase the general public’s average esteem for Congress. The Republicans have obviously taken heed of the fact that Americans are most concerned about the economy and jobs (and perhaps have read Dave Berry's analysis) and have thus attempted to argue that the healthcare bill repeal effort is in fact related to jobs and the economy (note again the title of the repeal bill). But it is not clear if the public will see it that way. Some may view it as a partisan effort in symbolism rather than a real attempt to attack problems.

Keep in mind that the 112th Congress begins with less than overwhelming approbation from the American public. The public’s approval of the job Congress is doing was at 13% in December, the lowest in Gallup polling history. Americans’ confidence in Congress as an institution is at 11%. That, too, is the lowest in Gallup polling history.

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