Brooks and the 'Obama Slide'

09/02/2009 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mark Blumenthal Mark Blumenthal is the Head of Election Polling at SurveyMonkey.

David Brooks' column in yesterday's New York Times has provoked considerable debate on both the Left and Right. It makes a number of assertions about public opinion, some with more support than others. While we can quibble with some of his claims, Brooks is generally right about Obama's slide, and Democrats and progressives ought to heed his warning about underlying public skepticism toward "big spending" and "big government."

Brooks starts with "two tides" that swept American politics this past winter:

The first was the Obama tide. Barack Obama came into office with an impressive 70 percent approval rating . . .

Close, but not quite. The early approval ratings that registered at or above 70 percent were based on surveys conducted before Obama's inauguration that asked about how he was handling the presidential transition. Of the questions that asked Americans to rate Obama's performance as president, immediately after the inauguration the biggest numbers came from Gallup (67%) and IPSOS/McClatchy (69%).

See also Charles Franklin's post earlier today, which takes issue with analogous claims made that Obama was "wildly popular" at the beginning of his term as compared to other presidents. "Obama entered office with strong support," he argues, "but not so strong as that of Eisenhower or Kennedy, and after a couple of weeks his approval was above average but only by a bit."

Brooks continues:

...The second was the independent tide. Over the first months of this year, the number of people who called themselves either Democrats or Republicans declined, while the number who called themselves independents surged ahead.

The percentage of independents has certainly increased since last year's election, although "surge" may be in the eye of the beholder. Here Brooks is most likely relying on the May report by the Pew Research Center that found independent ID "surging" from 30% to 39% (the same percentage that Brooks quotes in his next paragraph) between December 2008 and April 2009. They also found that their average percentage of independents from January to April (36%) approached a historical high: "[T]he only previous year when independent identification has been this high was in 1992 when Ross Perot ran a popular independent candidacy."


But consider that Pew's "surge" to 39% in April has abated slightly. Since April, the four surveys conducted by the Pew Center have reported slightly lower levels of independence. The average (36%) is the same percentage as their most recent survey conducted in late August.

If we look at other pollsters that have reported an independent percentage consistently across their surveys since last September,** we do see confirmation of a similar, though slightly smaller increase. The chart above shows the results for the eight pollsters listed in the table below. The green "independent" trend line indicates a roughly six percentage points increase since September (from just over 32% to 37.9%).


The table above probably mutes the size of the change a bit, since I averaged all surveys conducted this year, but it presents evidence of a robust trend: Every pollster captured at least a nominal increase in the independent percentage among adults over the last year.

Some of this is likely a typical pattern during and just after a high turnout presidential election. I did a similar comparison for late 2004 versus the first eight months of 2005 for the two pollsters (Gallup and Pew) for which I have party ID data. Gallup showed a three percentage point increase in independence in 2005, while the Pew independent number was roughly the same from late 2004 to the first half of 2005.

So there was definitely an increase in the independent percentage following the election, although your mileage may vary on whether to call that a "surge." The single digit increase is certainly smaller than the shifts in Obama's approval rating. The more important point involved the long term trend: The percentage of independents reported this year by Pew Research (36%) is nearing an all-time high.

Brooks continues:

Obama's job approval is down to about 50 percent. All presidents fall from their honeymoon highs, but in the history of polling, no newly elected American president has fallen this far this fast.

On this point, definitely click through to the Charles Franklin post from earlier today that explores this assertion thoroughly. Shorter Franklin: Obama's decline is significant but it was not quite as steep slightly steeper than Bill Clinton's fall in 1994, though it did not fall as low as Clinton. On the other hand, much of Obama's decline has occurred since May, a steeper slide that he says "should be far more worrisome to the White House than the initial polls or the net change from first to last poll."

More from Brooks:

Anxiety is now pervasive. Trust in government rose when Obama took office. It has fallen back to historic lows. Fifty-nine percent of Americans now think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Anxiety about the direction of the country -- as measured in the right direction/wrong track question -- certainly remains pervasive. I am not sure which survey produced the 59% statistic that Brooks cites, but it is within the range of recent results we have collected and our chart does show a rebound in the "wrong track" percentage after a decline earlier this year.   

But do these measures equate with "trust in government?"

Data reported by CBS News just this week says no. They have long asked Americans if they "trust the government in Washington to do what is right." Results compiled by the Polling Report show that, if anything, Obama's presidency has produced a small but continuing uptick in trust in government.   


While trust in government has not "fallen back" to historic lows, according to the CBS data, it remains very low. Thus the caution to the Obama and the Democrats remains the same as noted by the Pew Research Center report back in May. While Obama continues to enjoy strong personal popularity, that sentiment does not translate into a "commensurate shift in support for a broader government mandate:" Also, as the Pew Center's Andrew Kohut argued more recently, "broad distrust of government -- "which was not evident in the 1960s -- is an important reason why Americans are reacting so differently to health care reform in 2009 than they did [when Medicare was enacted] in 1965."

Brooks' final assertion about public opinion:

The public has soured on Obama's policy proposals. Voters often have only a fuzzy sense of what each individual proposal actually does, but more and more have a growing conviction that if the president is proposing it, it must involve big spending, big government and a fundamental departure from the traditional American approach.

Here I think Brooks is basically right, and while the decline in Obama's approval has many sources -- some of it inevitable -- the caution about "big spending" and "big government" is a caution Democrats and progressives would do well to heed.

It is hard to find a specific survey question that gets at this point directly, but it matches observations I have heard lately from campaign pollsters from recent focus groups. The "policy proposals" that voters have heard the most about were the bailout of the financial industry, the "stimulus" bill, the bailout of the auto manufacturers and the health care proposal. While the financial bailout was not created on Obama's watch, and while much of the rest was forced by the economic downturn, what all have in common is that they involved massive levels of government spending. Voters are hearing a lot about spending and "takeovers," but have yet to see much evidence that the trillions spent (or slated to be spent) are having a positive impact on their lives.

What survey evidence supports this assertion? Consider these two results:

  • The new CNN survey just out today shows a approval of Obama's handling of the "budget deficit" plummeting from 52% in march to 36% this week, while disapproval increased from 47% to 63% -- easily the worst issue area for Obama of 10 tested.
  • A USA Today/Gallup poll from late July (7/19) found 59% who said that "President Obama's proposals to address the major problems facing the country call for too much government spending," 27% say the call for the "right amount," and 11% say they spend "not enough."

And there is certainly ample evidence, highlighted best by this week's new CBS News poll, that the public has a fuzzy sense of what the Democrats health care proposals will do. Less than a third (31%) say they understand the health care reforms (67% say they are confusing), but far more believe health care reform is "impossible" without either increasing the deficit (47%) or raising taxes on the middle class (45%). And whatever their understanding, most are skeptical that they will personally benefit: Fewer than one American in five believes the proposed health care reforms will help them personally (18%), will reduce their costs (20%) or improve the quality of their care (19%).

You may not agree with Brooks' prescription, but he is right that Obama's biggest challenge in selling health care reform is the underlying skepticism of big government compounded by the recently heavy levels of government spending.

**Polling and media organizations are often inconsistent about the way they ask and report the "independent" percentage. Some push the initially uncertain harder for a choice, some offer "other" as an option and some report a percentage that combines independent, other and don't know (or some combination of the three).