12/16/2008 06:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Auto Bailout and Partisanship

As Mark wrote on Friday, there is a lot of variation in question wording and in support for a loan/rescue/bailout of the automobile industry. See his discussion for much of interest. Here I just want to add a couple of points.
First, opposition is consistently higher than support, as the trend estimates above show. For all the variation in wording and results, the basic conclusion is pretty strong: the public has not been convinced to support aid to the auto industry.  That makes Republican opposition in the Senate an easy political decision. President Bush's support for the limited aid proposal cuts no mustard with the public nor with his party in the Senate which is hardly surprising given his approval rating.
Second, the partisan division over an aid package favors the Republicans at this point, despite President-elect Obama's guarded support for the aid proposal.
While Democrats show a modest balance of support for the bailout, Independents side with Republicans in their opposition. Here I average over Marist, CBS and ABC polls taken in the last 10 days or so, the polls for which I could find partisan breakdowns. 
The fundamental point is that the public relies on political leadership on complex issues such as this. Few of us have the economics background to form an independent opinion on what should be done. So we look to the President or to the President-Elect or to Congressional leaders or other sources when these fail.  Given the weakness of President Bush, and the modest engagement of President-Elect Obama, leadership has fallen to members of Congress. There the Republican and Democratic split has reinforced public opinion divisions. But the key is that Independents are more inclined to follow Republicans, at least in the absence of a more forceful (or persuasive) Democratic message.
While it looks like the Bush administration may yet offer a "bridge loan" to the industry, this is a policy area that will confront the Obama administration early. At the moment, the pro-bailout position is a minority view. Either the new president will have to persuade those Independents to change their minds, or he will find he faces an early challenge to his ability to govern from a majority position. Little will erode his strong current public support faster than pushing for policies that face majority opposition. In this case, his tepid support for the auto-industry now may have missed the opportunity to convert Independents before their opposition has hardened. Or perhaps GM and Chrysler will file for Chapter 11 and spare him the task.