Over the past few weeks, the news media have been full of reports of surveys from The New York Times, CBS News and Quinnipiac University which reveal that President Obama’s approval ratings have sunk to new lows, especially among whites. The Times and CBS polls both report that Obama ended his first year in office with the lowest approval rating of any president among whites in the years that these surveys have asked the question.
Let’s not question the results of these surveys, but rather look at how they were constructed and what they don’t tell us. The survey questions ask specifically about how Obama has handled key issues, e.g., health care, the economy and terrorism (on which the president gets his top scores). But the survey does not ask why people don’t approve of the job President Obama is doing in any given area. How many don’t like Obama because his economic stimulus plan represents government intervention and how many don’t like it because he didn’t invest enough in job-producing activities?
This approach allows the mainstream news media to continue tacking right in setting the agenda for discourse, helped by Quinnipiac’s spokesperson who asserts that the main reason for Obama’s low ratings is that he has lost the support of the moderate white male, moderate in this case meaning right of the decidedly centrist president. Yet the survey offers no proof of this assertion, because the survey does not go deep enough into the reason people oppose the president.
Take for example Charles Blow’s article titled Lady Blahblah on the January 16 Op/Ed page of the New York Times, which discusses the surveys in connection with Sarah Palin taking a commentator’s job at Fox News. Blow assumes that many if not most of the white disapproving of Obama are waiting to watch Palin on Fox.
I think in this case, Blow blew it.
I live in a city that’s more than 70% Democratic in a blue state and most of the white people I know are disappointed with Obama, but for these reasons:
- He has not pulled enough troops out of Iraq.
- He is sending more troops to Afghanistan.
- Guantanamo prison is still open.
- He is not doing enough to help victims of the recession and create new jobs.
- He has not aggressively pursued more regulation of the real estate and banking industries.
- He has not more aggressively pursued health care reform.
None of these people are going to listen to Palin. But none of these surveys distinguish this group from whites to the right of Obama.
Understand that I am arguing by anecdote, but I do it not to prove that the disaffected are left of President Obama, but to suggest that no one has yet proved that the disaffected are right of the president and ripe for picking by the Tea and Republican parties. The media and most public forums just make this assumption in their analysis of the polls and for one reason: to keep moving the terms of discourse rightward.