There are two significantly different ways to interpret the latest Washington Post poll -- with two quite distinct implications for democratic strategy. Dems should consider both possible perspectives and not just one.
The latest Washington Post poll – dramatically titled “Faith in Obama Drops as Reform Fears Rise” -- has caused a tremendous amount of consternation among Democrats and no small amount of demoralization – arguably more than is actually warranted by the results.
We’ll look at some of the numbers in a moment, but, to begin, it is important to note that the reaction among Dems has been quite extreme -- “Obama is rapidly losing support”, “the voters are turning against us”, “we had the public on our side, but now they’re changing their minds”. “We’re losing the battle.”
Many commentators do indeed take note of the inevitable end of any president’s post-election honeymoon but they combine it with an implicit assumption that an optimal strategy could have limited any decline in support to just a fraction of the drop off that has actually occurred.
This has led to a quite rancorous intra-Democratic debate over “what we did wrong” --- “we didn’t communicate our message”, “the other side won the spring debate”, “our strategy was fundamentally flawed” and so on.
Given the poll results, at first glance this way of viewing the problem seems unavoidable. But it is vital to stop for a moment and ask if this is really the right way to conceptualize what the poll results indicate is going on? It is without question the most demoralizing possible way of framing the issue, but is it also the most accurate one?
It is possible to gain a useful perspective on this question by looking at a somewhat comparable situation that very often occurs in a very different realm of strategy -- the world of military affairs. In this other field, a rather parallel event is interpreted in a quite very different way.
Again and again in military history a general will begin a battle standing at the head of vast, awe-inspiring ranks of recently recruited soldiers -- often peasants and laborers rounded up by paid recruiters and given only a few days or weeks training -- only to see them melt away at the first taste of combat, dropping their weapons and fleeing the field in total disarray. Throughout military history -- from Caesar’s campaigns in the Roman Empire to the behavior of native forces recruited to support European colonial armies in the 19th and 20th century -- this kind of sudden collapse of untested forces in their first experience with combat is a common, recurrent event.
But military analysts virtually never interpret this kind of collapse as the result of some particular mistake in the general’s military strategy or as a failure of his leadership. Nor do they describe the unreliable soldiers as men who were previously loyal, motivated and committed but who for some reason changed their minds on the day of battle. Rather this kind of breakdown is invariably viewed as an entirely predictable – indeed often inevitable -- pattern that occurs when “green” troops – soldiers who have not been “battle-tested” in the heat of actual combat – are employed. In military history, it is a general rule that only after troops have been “seasoned” or ” combat-hardened” by experience under fire that they can be fully and confidently relied on to stand their ground in a new confrontation.
To put it simply, in the military sphere it is considered basically false to visualize untested soldiers as suddenly “losing” a confidence, warrior spirit or aggressiveness that they previously possessed; on the contrary, the military perspective is that they really never really had such characteristics in the first place.
Translated over to the realm of political strategy, this raises the question of whether it really makes sense to conceptualize a group of voters as genuine and solid “supporters” of some policy simply because they endorse it on a single survey question. It can be argued that this substantially mischaracterizes the cognitive structure of their attitudes.
Let’s face it -- we are all perfectly familiar with the typical pattern of high opinion poll approval for some progressive program that then declines sharply when the follow up question is asked “would you still be in favor of this reform if you have to pay higher taxes for it.”
This familiar, indeed, almost universal shift in attitude does not reflect the existence of two separate opinions or of a change of opinion from one moment to another. Cognitively speaking, both survey responses above are aspects of one single perspective that is measured in one way by expressing the proposal positively as a potentially desirable goal and then further explored by presenting arguments against it. It can reasonably be argued that it is really the number of people who support not only the initial statement of the program but who continue to support it after a range of effectively expressed arguments against it are presented who can properly be defined as real or genuine “supporters” of the program.
This is doubly true when one knows in advance that the policy in question is absolutely certain to be subject to severe, ruthless, dishonest and merciless attack. Much like untrained conscript soldiers, ordinary voters can also be profoundly frightened and demoralized by the “shock and awe” of observing a near-hysterical and almost demented assault on a program or proposal.
With this in mind, consider the data in the poll:
• Between February and August, Obama’s job approval declined by 11%
• The view that he was making the “right decisions for the country’s future” declined by 12%
• Approval of how Obama is “handling health care” declined by 12%
• Support for “a new health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance plans” declined by 12% from June to August.
• Agreement that reform is “necessary to control costs and expand coverage” rather than doing “more harm than good” also declined by 7% June-August
These declines are painful to observe, but the critical point to note is that the drops were from absolutely extraordinary levels of support that the poll measured in February – support far higher than Obama received on election day.
• Obama job approval - 68%
• Obama “making the right decisions” – 61%,
• Approval of Obama’s “handling health care -- 57%
• Support for a plan to “compete with private plans” -- 61%
• Reform is “necessary to control costs” not “ more harm than good” -- 58%
In evaluating these figures, it is important to ask the question – “is it really accurate to imagine that the 68% or even 61% approval actually represented “real”, deeply held and solid support that Obama had a serious chance of holding onto permanently? Or that support for major health care reform had risen to nearly 60% in February, although only 53% of Americans had voted for Obama 12 weeks earlier on election day?
In contrast, isn’t it more realistic to visualize these levels of support as representing extremely “soft” or “untested” support that was absolutely certain to wither under the intense fire that would be aimed at his plan by a near-hysterical Republican opposition --regardless of anything Obama might have done or said?
The answer has significant implications for both Democratic strategy and Democratic unity. If we assume the level of support was entirely under Obama’s control and a decline could have been avoided by such measures as better communication or presenting his own plan rather than relying on congress, then a 12% loss of support represents a serious strategic error that cannot be ignored. If we assume, on the other hand, that at least half, and possibly as much as two-thirds of decline was inevitable no matter what Obama did, then we are talking about only a 4% or 6% decline that might have been prevented with a different strategy.
A Democratic critic of Obama can obviously “reverse-engineer” an answer to this question and choose the interpretation that validates the degree of criticism he or she wishes to assert for other reasons. But Dems are united enough in their support for Obama’s general stance and agenda that all of us can and should temper our concern and criticism to take account of the fact that a substantial part of this decline was in all probability inevitable and should be accepted as the natural price one has to pay when challenging deeply entrenched economic interests and political opponents who are willing to use virtually any tactic and any degree of dishonesty they can possibly employ. It is easy for voters to approve of a policy when it is expressed positively on a survey question; it is much harder to sustain that approval when the policy is subject to the political equivalent of a massive “shock and awe” bombardment from profoundly ruthless antagonists.