Political Animal


September 17, 2011 9:40 AM When the parts are more popular than the whole

By Steve Benen

The New York Times/CBS News poll, released in full last night, has plenty of results you’d probably expect to see. President Obama’s support continues to slip; Congress’ support has fallen off a cliff; Dems are slightly more popular than Republicans (though both are unpopular); and an increasingly pessimistic public wants policymakers to work on jobs and the economy, not deficit reduction.

But we knew all of that. What I found far more interesting are the specific economic policies the American mainstream supports.

On President Obama’s American Jobs Act, for example, the public is lukewarm — a plurality are “somewhat” confident the agenda will “create jobs and improve the economy,” but support is hardly one-sided. Notice, however, what happens when respondents are asked about individual provisions:

Cut payroll taxes
Good idea 56%, bad idea 30%

State aid to prevent public-sector layoffs
Good idea 52%, bad idea 40%

Infrastructure investments
Good idea 80%, bad idea 16%

Small business tax cuts
Good idea 81%, bad idea 14%

Also note, a 71% majority believes any deficit reduction plan should include a combination of both tax increases and spending cuts — an approach rejected at a fundamental level by the GOP.

A CNN poll this week found similar results — the public generally approved of the American Jobs Act, but really approved of what’s in the Americans Jobs Act.

This may seem counter-intuitive — if people like the parts, they should like the whole — but it makes a lot of sense. Indeed, we saw the exact same thing during the fight over health care reform when Americans said they didn’t like the Affordable Care Act, but strongly supported all of the ideas in the proposal. The problem is one of political perceptions — the president is struggling, so when folks are asked about his plan, the question becomes a referendum on him. But when asked about specific ideas, it turns out most Americans agree with Obama and his plan. (Likewise, during health care, folks were misled by attack ads and lousy media coverage, and came to think poorly of the proposal, but they actually liked what’s in the plan.)

Taken together, Republicans aren’t just unpopular as a party, but they also stand strongly against with what the American mainstream wants. Some of the most popular ideas to give the economy a boost are also some of the ideas Republicans refuse to even consider.

Indeed, we now have four recent polls — NYT, CNN, National Journal, and NBC — that have all found roughly the same dynamic: “[D]espite all the disapproval and pessimism, Americans approve of the actual fiscal policies Obama is proposing.”

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • steve duncan on September 17, 2011 9:54 AM:

    If China nuked New York City and Boehner and Cantor could convince 50% of the population it was Obama that pushed the button (knowing full well it was a lie) they'd give it a shot. The one and only goal of Republicans now is to make Obama look bad and hope electoral success results from those efforts. Nothing else matters. Jobs? Ha! Not on your life.

  • John B. on September 17, 2011 9:55 AM:

    The real news here is in the NYT lede: "President Obama’s support is eroding among elements of his base... ."

    Obama needs to dump his political and economic advisers and he needs to do it NOW. Replace them with true liberals who will sit him down in the WH theater room and make him watch and listen to old speeches by FDR and Harry Truman for 72 hours straight.

    Then make him read a biography of Harry Hopkins after he's allowed to have a nap. Following all of this, bring in an orthopedic surgeon who can give him a backbone transplant.

    That's the only way Obama can win reelection.

  • berttheclock on September 17, 2011 10:09 AM:

    John B, Hear, Hear.

    Lawrence O'Donnell made some pertinent comments about why "Pass this Bill" doesn't have legs. This bill will be broken up into various parts in House committees. Several portions will not be able to pass due to the TPers control. "Pass this Bill, now" sounds great on the stump, but, doesn't pass muster in reality.

  • kevo on September 17, 2011 10:10 AM:

    Yes, the majority of Americans do indeed favor the policies promoted by our duly elected President, but the Republican brand - for the past three years - has successfully waged a psych-ops war against the Obama Administration and as a result, the traditional, low-information electorate is confused enough to tip the scales seemingly against the whole of the President's efforts, while blindly agreeing with virtually all of what he wants for our American society!

    Psych-ops professionals are somewhere at this time with smiles on their faces, thinking what a brilliant job they've done in promoting President Obama as a socialist, a friend to our enemies, a villain to Israel, a promoter of death panels, a foreign born interloper, an appeaser of alien ideologies, and so forth!

    In the mean time, Rome burned!

    Yes, I'm saying the Republican brand embodies the morals and ethics of Nero!

    If Americans don't rise up and punish Republicans at the polls in 2012,

    Whale Oil, Beef Hooked! -Kevo

  • c u n d gulag on September 17, 2011 10:13 AM:

    And what these numbers show me is that the MSM is doing a fine job, as always, of creating false dichotomies and equivalencies, leading to public confusion.

    It's always 'the politicians,' or 'Congress,' rather than "The Republicans," or "The Republicans in Congress."

    My real favorite is that the same MSM outlets that misinform the public, or under-inform it, then poll it, and wonder why the numbers are what they are?

    How can people this f*cking stupid remember how to breathe?

    Oh, yeah, it's an involuntary reflex, or else you'd see new reporters suffocate on air right after getting the job.
    "Hi, this is Chuck Todd report... rep... gasp... gurgle..."


  • sjw on September 17, 2011 10:30 AM:

    The problem is not just one of "political perceptions" created by the corrupt MSM but also one of poor messaging and missed opportunities by the White House. Obama could do it better but doesn't: the lessons of the past two years still seem unlearned.

  • Basilisc on September 17, 2011 10:34 AM:

    Democrats can't, and shouldn't, count on the MSM to sell their policies for them. And of course, they can't, and shouldn't, count on Republicans to discuss those plans fairly and honestly.

    Only Democrats can be effective salespeople for Democratic policy. Instead moderate Dems are hedging their bets and grumbling, while liberals Dems are whining about being mistweated and unappweciated.

    In other words, business as usual.

  • SYSPROG on September 17, 2011 10:40 AM:

    This is all fine but the DEMOCRATS must get off the dime and SUPPORT THE PRESIDENT. I'm talking to YOU, Manchin, Webb and the nimrod in Nebraska. You are so timid that you think if you SIT there the country will KNOW how crazy the GOP has become. Don't count on it. There is way too much money out there. If you WANT to be Republicans then switch parties. While you pretend to be Dems the MSM focuses on what YOU say and it's not helping the country. On that note, so what what the polls say? NO ONE is listening to the people. It's a circle jerk in D.C. and then the MSM parrots it.

  • max on September 17, 2011 10:49 AM:

    "Taken together, Republicans aren’t just unpopular as a party, but they also stand strongly against with what the American mainstream wants."

    The GOP has morphed into a combination crime/extortion cartel and a radical cult wrapped in the flag and the Constitution. But it can't happen here, right? Dream on. With this dumbed down electorate anything is possible after 2012.

  • Gandalf on September 17, 2011 10:53 AM:

    Here's an idea for the domocrats. Start passing bills that are immensely popular with the public and also are going to do some concrete good towards fixing some of the problems. If you look at those provisions na dbrek them down and make them into fights with the no nothing conseratives two distinct outcomes will take place. One the public good will be served by passge with tremendous support from the large majority of americans. Two thedemocrats will increase their popularity with the public and their chances of being reelected or elected.

  • Ralph on September 17, 2011 11:05 AM:

    I don't know about the Steve Benen's analysis but for me it's simple. I can agree with all of Obama's fiscal policies and still think that Obama is doing a poor job in managing the economy: evidence - THE ECONOMY!!! It would be hard for anyone to respond positively to Obama's handling of the economy when the economy is in a slump. That Obama hasn't found a way to foil the Republicans is not the Republicans fault - it's Obama's.

  • kevo on September 17, 2011 11:47 AM:

    Yes Ralph, for you it's simple, but indeed, you're being a bit myopic also! -Kevo

  • desraye on September 17, 2011 1:17 PM:

    "The real news here is in the NYT lede: "President Obama�s support is eroding among elements of his base... ."

    What base is the NYT referring to?

  • Taobhan on September 17, 2011 4:35 PM:

    @Steve Benen: "Taken together, Republicans aren�t just unpopular as a party, but they also stand strongly against with what the American mainstream wants. Some of the most popular ideas to give the economy a boost are also some of the ideas Republicans refuse to even consider."

    Yes, that's true as far as it goes. However, it ignores the great advantage Republicans have in messaging and, therefore, demonizing whatever it doesn't like. Public policy, especially these days, is complicated but the GOP is adept at producing short, pithy statements of its positions. While these ignore the subtleties and complexities of issues, they do seem resonate among voters who don't have the time or patience to wade through the intricacies of public issues. The Democrats are at a disadvantage in trying to explaining complexities in a simple way and they always seem to lose the messaging battle. It may not be fair but that's the way things seem to be today.

  • Robert Waldmann on September 17, 2011 4:36 PM:

    The claim that a majorities of US adults "didn’t like the Affordable Care Act, but strongly supported all of the ideas in the proposal." is not correct. The individual mandate and the cuts to the Medicare budget were unpopular. It is possible to reconcile the majorities with one consistent view that the other provisions were good, but that those two were very bad, so, on balance the reform was bad. But I shouldn't get stuck in the past.

    With the AJA it is true that all of the components are very popular, but the whole is only moderately popular. I'd say part of this is that a majority wants to cut government spending in the abstract but wants to increase spending on programs responsible for 98.3 % of spending (all minus foregn aid and maybe TANF). Stimulus is unpopular in the abstract but very popular in the concrete (and asphalt).

    I'd guess some of the switchers are partisan Republicans who support Obama's policies, but would claim they didn't if they knew they were Obama's policies.

    I think there was roughly the same pattern of responses in 2009, so I don't think it it is, to a major extent, due to the fact that Obama is struggling.

  • Doug on September 17, 2011 5:22 PM:

    The problem as I see it is that "spending bills" must originate in the House and the AJA definitely is a "spending bill". Democrats can propose anything they want, but that doens't mean the appropriate committee will do anything with that proposal, let alone allow the proposed legislation get to the floor of the House.
    Can the Senate add or substitute the contents of the AJA to a House bill that's already passed the House and is waiting for approval in the Senate? Of course, if THAT requires a filibuster-proof majority, we're stymied right off the bat.
    The best option, in my opinion, is to continue pushing the AJA as a SINGLE piece of legislation and when Boehner & Co. start sending pieces of it to the Senate, Reid should amend the proposed legislation with the remainder of the AJA and then send THAT back to the House.
    The advantage, as I see it, of that scenario is that it's the Republicans, either in the Senate by refusing to allow the amendments, or in the House, by then voting against the amended legislation, that will receive the blame for not passing the bill.
    Or am I being too simplistic?

  • LJL on September 17, 2011 8:47 PM:

    While Americans generally like the individual elements of President Obama's programs, they distrust him because Americans are essentially racists who cannot accept a black man telling them what to do. The country itself was founded as a racist adventure, built up as a racist endeavor and sustained by it obsession with its own racial exceptionalism. The proof of this endemic American racism is the fact that Republicans will not even accept their own programs when they are handed to them by Barack Obama. Needless to say, Americans like Tea Partiers strenuously deny that they are racists . . . of course, only their fellow racists are the only ones who believe these denials.

  • pencarrow` on September 17, 2011 10:44 PM:

    As I've commented before, when citing pools, it would be more informative if the proportion of Republicans vs Democrats were clearly stated so the reader can better evaluate poll responses.

    For this NYT/CBS News poll, the polled population was 26% Republicans and 33% Democrats, a difference of 7%. Several of the poll responses were favorable to Democrats but were around 7% +/- a margin of error, so not sure those responses tell us much.

  • ameshall on September 17, 2011 10:51 PM:

    "Likewise, during health care, folks were misled by attack ads and lousy media coverage, and came to think poorly of the proposal"

    Steve, you left out the political ineptitude and piss-poor messaging of the Democrats. The Democrats stood with their pants around their ankles as the GOP spewed lie after lie about the health care bill, everything from death panels to government-run health care. Had the Dems stayed on the message of ending ugly, unpopular insurance practices (like dumping those w/preexisting conditions) and aggressively pushed back against the GOP's whoppers, the Dems would be in a different situation today. They dug their own political graves with their political ineptitude, and it's been downhill ever since. You've got to hand it to the GOP: they can sell a bucket of crap as a bar of gold to just about anyone. The Democrats, on the other hand, couldn't sell a glass of water to a man dying of thirst.

  • Mitch on September 18, 2011 12:14 AM:

    The loss of the Brooklyn district to the GOP was actually a major support of Obama's economic plan.

    We should not worry about losing the Senate to the Republicans either, that is also a major support for Obama.

  • Texas Aggie on September 18, 2011 12:25 AM:

    So the next survey, and all that follow should be:

    Here are the items in Obama's Jobs program. How do you feel about each item (1 - 5)?

    At least for the people who take the survey, they will be aware that what they are evaluating is indeed part of his program?

  • bourassa on September 18, 2011 1:07 PM:

    Actually, the real message of all these polls is that American voters are mostly unfit to vote.

    But then, that's been obvious to the outside world ever since the American people re-elected George Bush with an increased majority AFTER learning that he'd led them to war on completely false pretences.

    Let's face it, the American people really have no-one to blame but themselves, for being so utterly clueless.

  • Potifar on September 18, 2011 2:56 PM:

    Bourassa is right.....our people is stupit.

    But President Obama and the dems haven't helped their own case much either. The problem is that they continuously accept the republican line on various issues....war, debt...whatever else. This only confuses people. And the american people are easily confused. If we had a party that would stand up and say unflinchingly that there should be NO cuts to SS, Medicare, Medicaid and then stand by those positions that might help. But you can't get dems to do that and I don't think we ever will.

    Lastly, wouldn't it be wonderful if Obama would support a challenger to one of the senate dinos? I think that in itself would make a world of difference in the party but I ain't holdin my breath wating for it to happen.

  • Anonymous on September 18, 2011 3:51 PM:

    Sorry, but Obama DID stand up and say no cuts to Medicare 'on his watch' and the GOP screamed absolutely bloody murder: "You excoriated US! How dare you put it like that!"

    So what did he do? Knowing they were going to hold hostage even the most normal functions of government, he 'negotiated' a grand bargain with Boehner in which he 'would cut' Medicare, but in the only detailed report I've EVER seen on this, only those billion dollar subsidies to insurance companies that Bush put in. He surely knew they would be saying "NO" to whatever he proposed, as they had with everything else.

    The GOP predictably rejected everything out of hand. Now he's saying, "Too late, never going to put that on offer again."

    Reagan and Clinton both had to 'tweak' Medicare to make it work with differing rates of population growth. No one assumed either of them was going to get rid of Medicare.

    Who's been saying that Obama would give away SS and Medicare?

    People like Bachmann.

    And the progressives believe HER?

  • bob lesch on September 18, 2011 4:07 PM:

    what no one is willing to take on is the very notion that tax based incentives have any benefit for the majority of citizens.

    what if we deep-sixed all tax based incentives and allowed only one universal deduction - say $12k/individual and $24k/married couple - for all individual tax filers?

    and what if we coupled it with a change in the playing field that taxed all income at the same rate - no matter how a person earns their revenue?

    how about taxing all businesses at exactly the same rate say - 20% on profits and enable that by eliminating everything in the business tax code except for some universally accepted expenditures for the cost of doing business?

    with so much talk about expanding the tax base focused on assigning an income tax obligation to the 40 or so percent of citizens who pay no income tax as a result of little or no earnings, maybe we should expand the tax obligations to G.E. first.

    all in all - a new and simple tax code shouldn't need to be more than 10 pages in length and come with the stipulation of automatically adjusting itself to congressionally approved increases in spending. it's entirely possible if there are no rebates, tax incentives, deductions, depreciations, exemptions or exceptions of any kind and above all, a no change clause until the long term debt is paid in full.