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David W. Moore: Obama, the Public, and Health Care

Today's post is from David W. Moore, author of The Opinion Makers: An Insider Exposes the Truth Behind the Polls (out in hardcover now, paperback with a new afterword available this fall). Moore is a senior fellow of the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. A former senior editor of the Gallup Poll, where he worked for thirteen years, Moore also served as professor of political science at UNH and is the founder and former director of the UNH Survey Center.

Book cover for The Opinion Makers by David W. MooreA recent ABC/Washington Post poll reported slipping support for President Obama's efforts to reform health care. In April of this year, polls showed 57 percent approval to 29 percent disapproval of the way the president is handling health care, compared to a 49 percent to 44 percent ratio in mid-July. That's an 8-point decline in approval and a 15-point increase in disapproval.

The same poll also showed that, by a 55 percent to 43 percent margin, Americans support a health care reform plan that is roughly what the president is requesting.

What's going on? If Americans support the president's health care plan, and it is now that he is pushing the Congress to pass legislation enacting reform, why is the president's popularity on this issue declining?

The public's growing disenchantment is especially surprising, because last April the president was hardly focused on health care at all, his attention mostly on getting a stimulus bill passed through Congress. Yet, if we believe the polls, his approval on health care was higher when he was not fully engaged in getting health care legislation passed (which the public wants) than when he is fully engaged!

A recent USA Today/ Gallup poll found a similar paradox. That poll found half the public disapproving of Obama's handling of health care policy, and only 44 percent approving. Yet, the same polling organization reported a week earlier that a substantial majority of Americans (a 56 percent to 33 percent margin) are in favor of Congress passing a major health care reform bill this year – something that may be possible only because the president is pressing the legislators to get it done.

Thus, the polls seem to be out of whack with what the public is thinking. That is, if you try to interpret the polls literally.

The question on approval of Obama's handling of health care is a classic case of how polls sometimes mislead more than they enlighten. The public's response to the question is not based solely on the president's behavior, but on the general issue.

The truth is that probably about a third to a half of all Americans have little to no idea of what exactly Obama is proposing, nor how engaged he is in getting the legislation passed. But most can hardly be unaware of the controversy surrounding the issue. Typically, polls show that the more coverage an issue receives in the news media, the lower the approval rating for anyone associated with it. That's because people generally react negatively to press coverage of issues when the major focus of that coverage is on how much legislators disagree.

For a comparison, look at Obama's approval ratings on foreign policy issues. Gallup reports significant majorities of Americans approving of Obama's handling of foreign affairs overall (57 percent approve to 38 percent disapprove), as well as his handling of the situation in Iraq (57 percent to 36 percent) and Afghanistan (56 percent to 34 percent).

Can most people really assess how well Obama is doing in those areas? Are they even paying attention? The answer to both questions is of course negative, but in the absence of significant media attention, public approval is substantial.

Which of course means, no news is good news.

Which also means, the polls aren't a very good indicator of what the public is really thinking.