Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Don't look to passing health care to raise Obama's numbers

In the face of Obama's declining poll numbers, his administration and supporters are searching for some hope that his numbers will end their decline and start moving in the other direction. Some of them are asserting that passing health care reform will move those numbers back up. They shouldn't pin their hopes on that.

Brendan Nyhan at Pollster.com argues that Democrats shouldn't put their hopes in passage of the health care reform package for increasing Obama's poll numbers. Nyhan looks at previous presidents and their poll numbers before and after the passage of their major domestic goal in their first year in office. So he looks at the passage of Reagan's tax cuts, Clinton's deficit reduction bill, and George W. Bush's tax cuts. And he adds in LBJ's poll numbers before and after the passage of Medicare. In none of these examples did the presidents' poll numbers move much at all after the passage of a major domestic legislative priority. While the parallels are, of course, not exact between those presidents and President Obama, this history certainly weakens the argument, put forth by the New York Times, that the Democrats need to pass the bill or Obama's numbers will continue their decline. We get this anonymous analysis from the New York Times.
If Congress passes Mr. Obama’s health care bill, the White House — and many independent analysts — believe that the accomplishment of a signature campaign promise is likely to push the president’s approval ratings back up.
Nyhan's analysis argues otherwise.
The larger story here is that many journalists and political operatives have a wildly exaggerated view of the president's ability to change public opinion outside of a foreign policy context (as with the Obama's health care speech). The reality is that Obama, like his predecessors, is largely at the mercy of the economy and external events unless a new war or foreign policy crisis emerges.
I would offer this explanation for the lack of movement of those presidents' numbers after the passage of their signature bill: the public had already fit each president's support for those particular bills into their opinion of that president. If they liked the proposal, then they already had decided they liked the president. And vice versa. It's similar to how the market might not move when news of some company's performance is announced because the market has already figured that performance into their assessment of the company. So people who like the health care proposals coming out of the Congress, already have a positive view of Obama. And those who don't aren't going to turn around and decide they like the President simply because he got passed a bill that they don't like. And why would those people in the middle who don't have an opinion suddenly decide that they are so happy that a bill that they were undecided about has passed that they will think better of the President than they did previously.

Now if unemployment suddenly and markedly decreased, that might move his numbers. Until that happens, unless there is some new foreign news, his numbers will be hostage to people's perceptions of how the economy is doing.