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Republicans — Not Obama — More Often on Wrong Side of Public Opinion

One of the more commonplace assertions among pundits on the center-right — made rather carelessly by Victor Davis Hanson and more thoughtfully by Jay Cost, is that agenda put forward by Obama and the Democrats is overwhelmingly unpopular and that Democrats are simply getting their comeuppance for having pushed such a liberal set of reforms forward. These claims, however, rely on selective evidence, invariably citing policies like health care and the GM bailouts which are indeed unpopular (strongly so, in some cases), while ignoring many other issues on which Obama has been on the right side of public opinion.

In fact, a more objective and equivocal evaluation of public opinion on more than two dozen specific issues finds that the Republican Congress has far more often been on the wrong side of it. Attempting to be as comprehensive as possible, I’ve identified 25 issues that Obama and the Democrats have made an affirmative effort to push forward since taking office a year ago, and summarized public opinion on each of them. Most of the numbers that I’ve cited come from

Afghanistan Troop Escalation. An average of seven polls taken since President Obama’s speech on Afghanistan in December show a 54-41 majority of the public in favor of escalating troop commitments. However, Obama appeared to get a bump from his speech, as an average of four polls conducted in November, prior to the speech, had shown a 49-46 plurality opposed to greater troop commitments.

Bank Tax. An NPR poll found a 57-39 majority in favor of the bank tax proposal, which the Congress has yet to consider, after being read arguments both for and against the program. (An ABC/Post poll found a 73-26 majority in favor of taxing financial sector bonuses over $1 million dollars, although the White House has not advocated for that measure.)

Ben Bernanke. The only poll on Ben Bernanke, from NBC/WSJ, found a 37-34 plurality opposed to his reappointment; Bernanke was approved by 22 of 40 Senate Republicans and 48 of 60 Senate Democrats.

Bush Tax Cuts. Although this polling is somewhat out of date, a CBS/NYT poll in April found 74 percent in favor, and 23 percent opposed, to raising taxes on those making more than $250,000 per year, as Obama’s budget would do. A Newsweek poll in March, with somewhat different phrasing, found 49 percent in favor of letting the tax cuts on the wealthy expire and 42 percent opposed.

Campaign Finance. The only poll to have asked directly about the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision is from FOX News, which found voters disapproving of the decision 53-27. A Gallup poll conducted last month found that, while most Americans consider campaign finance to be a form of free speech, they nevertheless by a 52-41 margin felt that the ability to place limits on political contributions was the higher priority.

Cap-and-Trade. The last five organizations to release polls on cap-and-trade (AP/Stanford, ABC/Post, CNN, Pew, Rasmussen) actually show it favored by the public by a 51-40 margin, on average. It is likely that a significant fraction of the public does not understand what cap-and-trade is; nevertheless most of these polls provided descriptions of the bill’s contents. Eight House Republicans voted for the climate bill in June; the Senate has yet to consider the measure.

Cash-for-Clunkers. The only organization to poll on this was Rasmussen, which found voters opposed to the program 35-54 in June, but a 44-38 plurality favoring the program in retrospect after it had been implemented.

Credit Card Protections. 77 percent of respondents favored the Credit Card Protection Act, according to a poll by Open Congress. The bill was approved 90-5 by the Senate in May, as well as by a 105-69 majority of House Republicans.

D.C. Voting Rights. 58 percent of the public favored, and 35 percent opposed, giving an a House seat to D.C. in a nationwide Washington Post poll conducted last February. The Senate approved D.C. voting rights by a 61-37 margin last February, with 6 Republicans voting in favor and 2 Democrats voting against, although the measure subsequently died in the House.

Fair Pay. Congress approved the Liddy Ledbetter Fair Pay Act last January; it received the support of 3 Republicans in the House and 5 in the Senate. A Rasmussen poll conducted shortly after the legislation passed found that Americans by a 66-24 majority do not believe that women earn equal pay for equal work, although it did not ask about the legislation specifically.

Financial Regulation. A Time/SRBI poll in October found that 59 percent of the public favors more regulation of Wall Street versus 13 percent favoring less and 22 percent the same amount. A CNN poll two weeks ago found 62 percent in favor of greater regulations and 35 percent opposed. House Republicans opposed the financial regulation bill unanimously.

Gays in the Military. Four organizations — FOX, Gallup, Quinnipiac, and CNN — have released polls on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell since Obama’s inauguration. They show an average of 58 percent saying that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell should be repealed and that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve openly in the military, and 35 percent opposed. No votes have yet occurred on DADT in either the House or the Senate, although the House’s repeal legislation has just one Republican co-sponsor.

GM/Chrysler Bailout. Quite unpopular: an NBC/WSJ poll in early June showed 39 percent of the public in favor and 52 percent opposed to the bailout, and a CNN poll in April found that 22 percent of the public favored additional assistance to GM and Chrysler while 76 percent would have preferred to let them go bankrupt. (There was no specific vote on GM in this Congress; instead, its funds came by way of the TARP program.)

Guantanamo Bay. Four organizations to release polls on Gutantanamo Bay between last February and last June found an average 55 percent of Americans opposed to closing the detention facility and 39 percent in favor, with the number of those opposed tending to increase over time.

Hate Crimes. Although there have been no recent polls on the subject, a Gallup survey in May 2007 found a 68-27 majority in favor of expanding hate crimes statues to include sexual and gender identity. The Matthew Shepard act, a hate crimes measure, passed the Congress last year, receiving the support of 18 House Republicans and 5 Senate Republicans.

Health Care. It has clearly become unpopular; the latest trendlines show 38 percent in favor of the bill and 55 percent opposed. One Republican voted for the health care bill in the House and none did in the Senate.

Jobs Bill. A CNN poll in December found 74 percent thought Obama should concentrate on creating more jobs “even if it means less deficit reduction.” A Bloomberg/Selzer poll, also in December, asked about specific measures that might be undertaken as part of a jobs bill and found 68 percent in favor (and 28 percent opposed) to tax credits, and 66 percent in favor (versus 32 percent opposed) of spending on public works projects, although just 48 percent were in favor of additional assistance to state and local governments. House Republicans unanimously opposed a $100 billion jobs bill in December.

Mortgage Relief. Senate Republican unanimously voted against the Durbin Amendment to provide mortgage relief in April, as did 12 Senate Democrats. However, four organizations which polled on mortgage relief in February through April found an average of 60 percent of Americans in support of additional assistance versus 34 percent opposed.

PAYGO. There is no specific polling on Congressional pay-go rules, which Senate Republicans recently voted against 40-0., but in the abstract moves toward balancing the budget are almost always popular, such as a CNN poll in November which found 67 percent preferring balanced budgets to deficits “even when the country is in a recession and is at war.”

SCHIP. Although there have been no recent polls on SCHIP (children’s health care), an ABC/Post poll in September, 2007 found it supported 72-25 by the public, and a CNN poll in October, 2007 found that the public wanted by a 61-35 margin for the Congress to override President Bush’s veto of the program. Nine Republican Senators voted to extend SCHIP in February as did 40 House Republicans.

Sonia Sotomayor. The last five polls to be released on Sonia Sotmayor in advance of her confirmation showed 52 percent in favor of her confirmation and 30 percent opposed, on average. Senate Republicans opposed her confirmation 31-9.

Stimulus. The stimulus has become somewhat unpopular now — although most individual elements of the program remain popular. However, the stimulus was somewhat popular at the time of its passage. An average of the last five organizations to release polls in advance of the Senate’s vote on the stimulus on 2/9/09 showed 50 percent in favor of the bill and 38 percent opposed. House Republicans opposed the stimulus unanimously; Senate Republicans gave it 3 votes.

TARP. The TARP program began under Bush and was extended before Obama took office, but Obama nevertheless actively lobbied Democrats for its extension. TARP was unpopular from the get-go, and Americans opposed its extension 56-32 last January, according to a poll then from Diageo/Hotline. All but 6 Senate Republicans voted not to extend TARP.

Terrorist Trials. An average of two recent polls from Rasmussen and CBS had 38 percent of the public in favor of terror trials in civilian courts, but 55 percent opposed.

Torture Memos and Investigations. Four polls conducted in April showed an average of 43 percent of Americans in favor and 51 percent opposed into an investigation of Bush-era torture policies. The only poll to ask about the release of the Bush torture memos, from ABC/Post, found 53 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed.


Of these 25 issues, Obama’s position appears to be on the right side of public opinion on 14: the bank tax, repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, campaign finance, the credit card bill, D.C. voting rights, fair pay, financial regulation, gays in the military, hate crimes, the jobs bill, mortgage relief, PAYGO, SCHIP, and Sotomayor. It would appear to be on the wrong side of public opinion on five issues: the GM/Chrysler bailout, Guantanamo Bay, health care, the extension of the TARP program, and terrorist trials. On the other six issues, the polling is probably too ambiguous to render a clear verdict.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been overwhelmingly opposed to almost all of these measures with the exception of Ben Bernanke and Afghanistan troops, both of which poll ambiguously, and the credit card bill, which polled well.

Obviously, this analysis is superficial in certain ways. All issues are by no means created equal, and health care in particular, which is unpopular, has weighed heavily upon the public’s perception of the Democrats. In addition, there is probably another layer of ‘meta-argument’ that goes beyond specific issues, and at which the GOP has tended to excel.

Nevertheless, it runs in contrast to the objective evidence when one asserts, as Hanson does, that “On every issue … the Obama position polls 5-15 points below 50 percent.” Rather, the votes taken by the Republican Congress have far more often been out of step with those of the median voter.

This is not to give a mulligan to the White House or to the Democrats — as I’ve written before, their meta-strategy has necessarily had to be somewhat terrible so as to take what has been a fairly popular and centrist agenda and have it regarded as overwhelmingly contentious and partisan by so much of the public.

EDIT: What about EFCA/card check? I didn’t forget about it; rather, I excluded it because it’s something which the Democrats abandoned early on and which the White House never lifted a finger for. Obviously, there are a lot of policies that the Democrats theoretically have in their arsenal — card check, legalizing pot, gay marriage, nationalizing the banks, a radically more progressive tax code, etc. — which are both quite liberal and (with one or two possible exceptions) quite unpopular. But the Congressional Democrats didn’t spend much of any effort on those issues, and the White House spent essentially none. The agenda they’ve spent their political capital on, rather, has been quite centrist — which is sort of the whole point of this article.

If you did include card check, by the way, the verdict would be rather ambiguous. Ignoring some amazingly crappy (and contradictory) partisan polling on both sides of the topic, the closest we have to a neutral poll is this one from Gallup, which shows 53 percent in favor of a “new law that would make it easier for labor unions to organize workers” but which is probably too vague to be useful. To be clear, my hunch is that card check would indeed prove to become unpopular if it were debated more vigorously — but that’s just a hunch, and we’re trying to rely on the objective evidence for this exercise.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.