Obama Speech: A Trend Changer?

09/15/2009 03:49 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Was last week's health care address by President Obama a "game changer ? Just a "bounce?" Or did it leave Obama's ratings unchanged? As PPP's Tom Jensen lamented via Twitter today, it "definitely seems like there's a poll out there to fit any story line you want" about the impact of Obama's speech.

We have enough polls now to say that "game changer" is an overstatement, but concluding that the speech made no difference requires that you overlook mid to late August. A better term may be "trend changer." For the moment, we do see a modest improvement in some key trends. Will these persist? As always, that's much harder to say.   

Our chart of Obama' job approval rating, embedded below, now includes seven surveys conducted entirely after the speech last week. As some commentators noticed yesterday, the nose of the black approval trend line has turned upward for the first time since April. As of this hour, the estimate of 53.8% approval, based on all available polls, represents an increase of 2.3 percentage points in the approval percentage since hitting a low of 50.4% on August 27.

That relatively modest upward slope on that trend line is still not "locked in." It may still disappear or fade depending on the values of the polls released over the next week or so. New polls typically change the trend lines on our charts by altering the slope of the "nose" of the chart a little further up or down. So in a week or so, the new polls will either confirm the upward movement, flatten it out or possibly even turn it downward.

But for the moment, our usually small-c conservative trend line is showing a very modest upturn in Obama's job approval rating for the first time since April.

You can see a similar changes in the most general opinions expressed about health care reform, although the number of available surveys is much smaller so the trends are generally not evident on our two health care charts. Three pollsters have reported before and after measurements of Obama's job approval rating on health care reform: CNN/ORC, ABC News/Washington Post and CBS News. All three show nominal increases in his approval rating. The change is bigger on the CBS survey, although that may be because they used a "panel back" design that recontacted respondents originally interviewed during late August.


Two pollsters so far -- CNN and Rasmussen Reports -- have updated general favor-or-oppose questions about the Obama health care reforms. As of today, the "favor" percentage has ticked up on both surveys since surveys in mid-to-late August.  Like the job approval ratings, represent returns to levels seen earlier in the summer.  Taken alone, these changes are not large enough to achieve statistical significance, but we can have some confidence in their consistency to the small improvement in Obama's approval ratings since late August.


So multiple tracking measures from multiple pollsters show roughly the same thing: Small, nominal increases in approval for Obama or support for health reform.   

Will these modest gains persist? If history is a guide, the answer is probably no. That said, the interesting thing to watch as more data become available is not just whether the gains hold but also their source. The White House appears to be directing considerable message firepower at its base: A speech with an emotional tribute to Ted Kennedy, speeches to organized labor and appearances on 60 Minutes and (next weekend) on all of the Sunday morning talk shows that will reach the better-educated news junkies who formed the core of Obama's primary support.

While the data do not show the public opinion "game changer" that some Democrats hoped for, they might want to consider the point that Bob Shapiro made here last week: "what will count most is not what the public thinks at this moment, but rather the extent to which Democratic leaders unite around Obama's plan." He points out that in 1993-1994, "Democratic leaders never supported any Clinton plan, and this, along with the strong Republican leadership opposition caused the public to become apprehensive and turn against health care reform."

That observation is interesting given a comment I heard from a Democratic campaign pollster a few weeks ago. He said that in addition to news about the bad economy and the heavy level of government spending seen over the last year, independent voters were most aware that while Republicans seemed united in opposition to Obama's health care reforms, Democrats in Congress seemed divided. News coverage tends to focus more on the process than substance, so that finding is not surprising, but the bad news for Democrats is the inferences that voters draw: if the Democrats are divided, they conclude, there may be something to Republican claims about "death panels" and a "government takeover" of health care. When that happens, independents and moderate Democrats get nervous.

President Obama did appear to achieve a greater sense of unity and support from Democratic lawmakers in the immediate aftermath of the vote. If that unity persists, it may not only make passage of health care reform more likely, but also help improve the news coverage in a way that helps solidify these modest gains in approval.