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To me, this poll’s big finding: We like to whine

A Tea Party supporter at a 2010 Wilmington, Delaware, rally.
REUTERS/Tim Shaffer
A Tea Party supporter at a 2010 Wilmington, Del., rally.

Do you ever have the urge to grab the whole country by the shoulders, shake it (firmly but gently) and say something like:

a) quit the whining;

b) try to appreciate the freedom, prosperity and security that you have (which is a lot more than the whining tends to suggest);

c) identify the most important things you would like to see changed;

d) figure out how you would like to see them changed;

e) decide whom you trust to make that change happen;

f) get active and get organized on behalf of those candidates and those issues;

g) get over the feeling that those who disagree with your idea are evil; as much as you can stand to, consider the possibility that everyone’s motives are a mixture of selfishness and altruism, just like yours;

h) even if you can’t get the changes you want, go back to a) and b); and

i) rinse, repeat.

Sorry, this is me on truth serum. I know I have no business going on this way.

If you’re wondering what set me off, I was studying the results of the latest Washington Post/ABC poll. There’s nothing particularly surprising in it. It matches up with most other polls on similar personalities and issues. The conventional reading would be that Obama’s approval rating is continuing its recent modest comeback, that the polarized public is deeply divided between Democratic and Republican approaches on health care and most other issues, and that the public is still very uncertain and anxious about the economic recovery.

And that’s all true. But lately the constant whining about the situation, the evil motives of whichever party one doesn’t belong to, the threats to liberty and to future generations, etc. is just getting to me. So, with apologies in advance for oversimplifications, this is how I read this particular poll:

We don’t like anyone, except President Obama, and him only recently and just barely and soon we’ll switch back to not liking him either.

By 60-38, we think the country is not headed in the right direction but is on the wrong track. This is actually a positive “score,” compared to recent history. In the late Bush period, right direction numbers fell into the teens. As recently as October, it was in the 20s.  And 60 percent is the lowest “wrong track” score since June. But still, by almost 2-1, we are unhappy with the “track/direction” on which we find our nation.

But that’s nothing new. Since the end of the Reagan years, Americans have seldom mustered a majority behind the feeling that the country was on the right track.

And whom do we blame? Well, everybody.

Liking Obama, kinda
On Obama: The Post poll is consistent in general terms with what other approval-rating takers have been finding: He is making a bit of a comeback in approval. His approvers outnumbered his disapprovers by 54-43. This is his best showing in well over a year. He has spent most of 2010 with disapprovers outnumbering his approvers.

Meanwhile, this same Obama-liking Post/ABC sample:

disapproves of Obama’s handling of the economy — 51-46, and the picture is much worse if you look at strong disapprovers (38) versus strong approvers (22).

disapproves of Obama’s handling of health care (52-43)

disapproves of Obama’s work on the deficit (52-43).

One conventional explanation, for pundits who are not suffering from my bad mood, is that many Americans like Obama on an emotional level that is not closely related to the way they feel about his policies. And the does, by small margins, approve of his work in some areas. For example, the plurality:

approves of his work on taxes (50-44, watch out Repubs, that’s supposed to be one of your favorite clubs); on Afghanistan (49-41) and on relations with China (43-35, a big don’t know factor on that one, and the poll was completed before the recent visit from Chinese Pres. Hu).

Still, overall, this is not a happy picture for Obama, unless you start comparing it with the responses on other components of the national leadership.

For example, the Post’s sample disapproves of the way the U.S. Congress is doing its job (by 66-28!!!). And even this terrible number is a slight improvement over the previous few times the Post has asked the question. The last time Congress got an approval number above 30 in a Post/ABC poll was early 2008. The last time Congress approvers outnumbered Congress disapprovers was in April of 2003. Who keeps electing these idiots? (Stay away from the mirror.)

 In general, the tendency of Americans to disapprove (on net) of Congress goes back to the 1970s, although the current dissatisfaction is toward the high end, by historical standards.

The Post/ABC pollsters asked Americans whom they trusted more – Obama or “the Republicans in Congress” — to handle various issues. Although the questionnaire didn’t offer the choice of “neither,” a substantial number — from 6-10 percent depending on the issue — volunteered that they trusted neither Obama nor the Congress. A much smaller group (1-5 percent) volunteered that they trusted “both.” Of those willing to express a preference, Obama out-trusted the Repubs on every issue except one, where they tied:

The economy: Obama by 46-41.
Deficit: Obama by 44-41.
Terrorism: Obama 45-39.
Afghanistan: Obama 52-31.
Health care reform: Tied: 42-42.
Helping the middle class: Obama 51-37
Taxes: Obama: 44-42

In an attempt to summarize all issues, the poll asked: Do you think the country should go in the direction Obama wants to lead it, or go in the direction the Republicans in Congress want to lead it?

Obama: 44-35.

On the economy
If you’re an Obama-liker and all this trust of Obama is starting to go to your head, let’s go back to the No. 1 issue, the economy, on which we trust Obama slightly more than his tormentors in the other. Despite that, 35 percent of Post-ABC respondents said that Obama’s economic program is making the economy better, compared to 24 percent who think his program is making it worse and the plurality, 39 percent, think it is having no effect. Quite an endorsement.

And, although respondents trust Obama’s general direction more than the Republicans’ general direction, and although they trust Obama equally with the Repubs on health care, they have, at least on a plurality basis, bought most of the arguments that Repubs have been making about the big health care bill. You know, the Repubs, those guys that they don’t trust.

By 50-45, the poll sample opposes the health changes that were enacted last year, and the strong opposers outnumbered the strong supporters by 35-25. (It’s true, as lefties like to note, that the opposers include a substantial portion who disliked the bill because it didn’t go far enough, but, by 71-25 percent, those who opposed the bill said it goes too far in changing the U.S. health care system.)

A majority of respondents (54-39 percent) said if the new law is implemented without major changes the reforms are more likely to hurt than to help the economy; a plurality (46-38) says the new system will be a job-killer rather than a job-creator; and by 62-29 percent a big majority believes that fiscal effect of the new law will be an increase the federal deficit (notwithstanding that Obama and the Congressional Budget Office say the opposite).

Despite all those negative feelings about the likely effects of the bill, only 33 percent of those who opposed the law want to see it repealed totally (as the House Repubs voted symbolically to do this week). Another 35 percent of those who oppose the bill favor repealing some parts but not all of it. And another 30 percent prefers to wait and see how the bill works out before deciding what to keep and what to change. Bear in mind, these last three answers all come from respondents who would have preferred that the bill not pass at all.

Presidential contest
Lastly, of local note and having nothing to do with my stop-the-whining message, the Post asked those who called themselves Republicans or Repub leaners whom they favored for the presidential nomination to challenge Obama in 2012. The result is further evidence that, despite some recent national exposure and favorable comment on his calm approach to the Tucson events, Tim Pawlenty still hasn’t registered, or been embraced, by the Repub electorate. The results, including leaners:              

Mike Huckabee 21
Sarah Palin 19
Mitt Romney 17
Newt Gingrich 9
Chris Christie 8
Rick Perry 3
Mitch Daniels 2
Tim Pawlenty 2
Mike Pence 2
Haley Barbour 1
Jim DeMint 1
Jon Huntsman 1
Rick Santorum 1
John Thune *
Other (vol.) 1
None of these (vol.) 6
Would not vote (vol.) *
No opinion 6

OK, I seem to have snapped back to normal political observer mode. Please pardon that outburst.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 01/21/2011 - 11:08 am.

    When you read any of these polls regarding Obama, remember this: the rule of thumb is, any politician who has disapprovals in the 40s is in big trouble with the electorate. It means his level of support is an inch deep.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 01/21/2011 - 11:16 am.

    This poll may reveal more about the highly successful right-wing propaganda machine than about what people would think were they not bombarded by words like “death panel” and “socialized medicine,” none of which are true.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/21/2011 - 11:23 am.

    I have similar moments myself.

    Most of the world lives on about $2 a day, and in a sizable portion of that world, people expressing views similar to those of the tea partiers would be imprisoned or shot, sometimes with the former simply delaying the latter.

    I’m not happy with the decline in my home’s value or the concurrent rise in taxes, or the fact that people can go bankrupt in this country due to medical bills, but my fixed retirement income allows me to live in modest comfort that is – literally – almost king-like compared to people living in many parts of the globe. Like most Americans, I’ve not done much to deserve being on the high end of that disparity in lifestyle – I was simply born in the right place and at the right time.

    If you’re religious, thank God. If not, appreciate your good fortune. Meanwhile, pay attention to a) through i), and note the many, many contradictions in the various poll ratings.

  4. Submitted by craig furguson on 01/21/2011 - 11:36 am.

    Every couple of weeks or so, I have to look in the mirror and say slowly, “all I have control over is my own actions and reactions.” Then I (choose one or all) go for a run, read a book, have a beer, or go out and play with something in the garage while listening to music on the radio.

  5. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 01/21/2011 - 12:08 pm.

    Given that I don’t have time to go throught polls like this page by page, and, that by the time I get home at night, I probably couldn’t make much sense of it, I really appreciate the job you do going through polls like this, even if you are in a funk.

    I think the thing I, and probably lots of other people, find the most interesting are the inconsistencies that you point out so well.

    Is there anyone out there who seems to have a handle on why these exist, particularly to the extent that they do right now? Are people responding to the questions for themselves, or are they responding to them the way they think “their side” would answer the questions? How much are their answers influenced by the last thing they saw or heard on Rush or Obermann? Are these answers influenced at all by their values and/or faith? And, of course, how much are their answers influenced by their recent history, i.e. laid off – haven’t found a job, just found a job; working – haven’t had a raise or bonus in 2 years or just hit the jackpot at Mystic Lake?

  6. Submitted by Lance Groth on 01/21/2011 - 12:12 pm.

    We are a nation of whiners, nothing new there. What concerns me is that, in many cases, the whiners don’t even really understand the issue they’re whining about. Particularly if they base their views on talk radio or certain t.v. networks. It would be comical to see so many people jacked up about issues concerning which they are completely confused, if it weren’t also dangerous.

  7. Submitted by BILL MCKECHNIE on 01/21/2011 - 12:30 pm.

    Eric I agree with you that the white haired greatest generation who make up most of the TEA Party should get over it. For the past thirty years the wealthiest of them have not paid their fair share of taxes putting many states in a bankrupt position with their unfunded liabilities for public pensions and they have had the the kids fight two wars for no real reason. To fix these problems we need to stop whining, have the over 65 crowd pay a surcharge on their wealth over 150k with a sliding scale up to the billionaires to fix the balance sheets of the federal and state governments. We need to end the wars, and force future presidents to only go to war with a declaration of war, a draft and shared sacrifice with taxing everybody to pay for the war as long as it goes on.

    Whining by the greatest generation is just not justified.

  8. Submitted by Erik Hare on 01/21/2011 - 12:49 pm.

    I’ve been saying more-or-less this for 4 years, and I’ve gotten a decent readership off of it. So welcome to the club! Good to have you on board. You’ll find that a lot of people are far more interested in real solutions than whining, so the more you come up with and/or encourage in the comments the more you’ll attract good readers.

    It’s worth the effort, IMHO. A free country always is.

  9. Submitted by Dimitri Drekonja on 01/21/2011 - 01:25 pm.

    The Onion ran a story that pretty much sums up this sentiment (May 192010, “Majority of Government Doesn’t Trust Citizens Either”).

    Satire, but as is true with good satire, devastatingly on the mark. Points out that these poll results are from the same population that has large percentages that:
    -Can’t decide whether the president is a muslim
    -Doubt he was born in the US
    -Think being asked to fill out a 10 question census form is tyranny of some sort

    The fact that most republicans consistently vote for representatives who enact tax policy that favors other people is a tribute to either: 1) the right’s message machine, or 2) the inability of the population to pay attention.

  10. Submitted by Don Medal on 01/21/2011 - 01:40 pm.

    How is it that Michelle Bachmann isn’t on that list of candidates?

    thanks for a great article and a few laughs too.

    I think most Americans need to remember we are all in this together and that in a democracy other good people may have differing views. If we continue down the path of hating each other we’ll do to each other what the USSR couldn’t do throughout the Cold War.

  11. Submitted by Tim Brausen on 01/21/2011 - 03:34 pm.

    I think the American voter is very consistent: we hate whoever is in power and vote against them (“who elected these idiots, anyway?”)

    That’s why in Minnesota we elect a Governor pledged to raise rich people’s taxes and a Legislature pledged not to raise rich people’s taxes. That’s why we elect a President that pledges change, then when a Congress votes in the change we elect others who pledge to change things back. In northern Minnesota we vote out a Congressman who’s been bringing home the bacon for 36 years and elect someone who pledges not to take bring home those federal dollars.

    Now if only we would elect a Congress committed to taking away the funding of the largest military force the world has ever seen, maybe we could make some progress in this country. After all, that is the part of our federal government that is truly unsustainable (ask the ancient Romans about their imperial army) yet we never talk about it at all.

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