I happen to believe that while this may be a good political strategy for Obama, he can’t sustain it because all of his political instincts and tendencies still lean left. As a result, his “inauthenticity” will be perceived by the voting public louder than his words. Clinton was a political realist when he learned to accommodate the emergence of Republicans in 1994. Obama still believes that he can stem the tide of losses amongst independents by talking centrist, while having no real capacity within himself, his staff or the Democratic leadership to govern from there. What say you??
The Way We’ll Be
Obama Plays Conciliator-In-Chief
John Zogby 02.11.10, 12:01 AM ET
As he campaigned for the presidency Barack Obama offered himself as a conciliator, and voters responded favorably. But one year into office, public anger has grown, and Obama is still pleading with Republicans and Democrats to get along.
Democrats on the left are frustrated that Obama continues to reach out to Republicans when it seems obvious to them that the GOP’s plan is to obstruct every initiative. Republicans on the right don’t trust Obama and believe all his talk about cooperation is just cover for his plans to promote a socialist agenda. Obama’s continued appeals to bipartisanship aren’t aimed at either extreme. He is talking to voters in the middle and hoping to maintain their trust in him, and our polling shows he may be having some success.
Obama effectively used his State of the Union address to call for an end to “the tired old battles” that divide the nation. He challenged his own party “not to run for the hills” after losing a filibuster-proof Senate majority and told Republicans that now that they have 41 votes in the Senate, “the responsibility to govern is now yours as well.”
Obama followed that by meeting with the House Republican caucus. Both aired their grievances and disagreements, but having the president publicly meet with the opposition party may have been more important to voters than the content of the dialogue.
Obama met again with Republican leaders on Feb. 9, and next up is a televised Feb. 25 bipartisan summit on health care reform where both parties and Obama can present their ideas.
Our latest Zogby Interactive poll (Jan. 29-Feb. 1) asking about Obama came after the State of the Union and his meeting with House Republicans. His approval rating hit 50% for the first time since last September. Among independents his approval bounced from 36% at the end of 2009 to 45%.
Another interactive poll in the first week of February asked whether voters believed Obama was being sincere about wanting to work with both parties to find solutions. By 53%-46% voters agreed that Obama was sincere about bipartisanship. The question measured agreement-disagreement on a four-point scale and found voters much more divided than the overall result seems to show. Forty-one percent strongly agreed Obama was sincere, and 39% strongly disagreed he was not.
It wasn’t just Republicans and Democrats who took the more extreme positions. By a 52%-39% margin, independents agreed Obama is sincere about working with both parties, but three-quarters agreed or disagreed strongly.
We also asked voters to compare Obama and his two predecessors on the same question. Obama was seen as more sincere about being bipartisan than George W. Bush, 49%-38%. However, Bill Clinton was chosen over Obama, 42%-33%.
Why would a President whom a Republican House majority impeached be seen as more bipartisan than Obama? Clinton emphasized repeatedly that he was not a liberal. But so has Obama, including when he specifically told the House Republicans “I am not an ideologue.”
Clinton had eight years to show he was not an ideologue, and a Congress that still had a working core of moderates in both parties willing to make deals. After passing welfare reform and failing at health care reform, Clinton went for small-bore initiatives that looked good when the economy was strong and the nation was not at war.
Today there are few, if any, moderates among Congressional Republicans and not as many among Democrats as there were in the 1990s. Obama inherited a deep recession, huge debt and two wars. He had to stem the banking crisis with government money, and he chose to take on health care. And as much as we might like to not see race as a factor, Obama is still the first African-American President.
Obama governs in a hyperpolarized time, so he must continue to be seen by moderate voters as the leader standing above the fray trying to bring both parties together for the public good. Fortunately for him, Obama is very good in that role; and that will make him a very formidable candidate in 2012, even if the economy has not fully recovered.
There is also a more immediate strategy in dialogue with Republicans: passing health care reform and a jobs bill. Now that Republicans have proven they can stop anything in the Senate, Obama is telling them that they must now share in governance. Our most recent interactive poll found voters split at 49%-49% on whether Congress should finish the process and pass health care reform. Among moderate independents, 55% want the process to go on.
By bringing them to the table Obama is forcing Republicans to present their health care proposals. If Democrats accept some of these, the Republicans will look like obstructionists if they continue to use their 41 Senate votes and block an up or down vote on final legislation. Also, going the extra step of meeting publicly with Republicans could make it easier for Democrats to use budget reconciliation rules and pass much of their health care bill with a simple majority in the Senate.
As for a jobs bill, Republicans know that voter anger is aimed at all incumbents, and failing to act on people’s central concern will be bad for them as well.
Since last August all of the momentum has been with Republicans. Obama is hoping that being seen as the conciliator-in-chief will change that dynamic. Stay tuned.
John Zogby is president and CEO of Zogby International and the author of The Way We’ll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream. He writes a weekly column for Forbes .