How Persuasive Is Obama? We're About to Find Out

Washington Matters

How Persuasive Is Obama? We're About to Find Out

Something intriguing is going on with the polls. President Obama is still enjoying broad popularity despite some missteps. However, public support for his top priority -- the stimulus package -- is considerably lower and may even be losing ground.

We already know Obama's powers of persuasion are considerable -- the sheer numbers of experienced opponents he left at the side of the road last year are plenty of testament to that. But will he be able to build strong support for legislation that has many people skeptical? Obama certainly thinks so.

Most polls show support for the stimulus package at or just above 50%. Some have had support at that level consistently while others have shown support sliding from early January. That coincides with sharp Republican criticism of the bill as out-of-control spending and Democratic criticism of Obama for letting that charge go unchallenged for too long.

Obama responded by sharpening his tone late last week and -- in advance of crucial negotiations over the final shape of the package -- launching a publicity blitz that included two highly publicized town meetings, a prime-time news conference and more network interviews. Those events, which came after these most recent polls were taken, gave Obama the opportunity to rebut the most commonplace charges against the bill, spell out his rationale for supporting particular spending proposals and attack GOP tax proposals as inadequate.

It can be argued that Obama has succeeded in reframing the debate and recapturing at least some control of the message. But it will be interesting to see if public support begins to grow as an agreement and, presumably, final passage draw nearer in the next week or two and as Obama keeps up the pressure. Obama seems to have some advantages beyond the confidence placed in him by much of the public. Marks for Congress are considerably lower. And while Republicans clearly succeeded in doing some damage to the billl, the fight has done little so far to change the public's dim view of them. In a recent Gallup poll, 67% approved of how Obama was handling the stimulus debate, while 25% disapproved. For Democrats the numbers were 48-42 while approval for Republicans was just 31% vs. a 58% disapproval.

The question of whether Obama can build broader and more enthusiastic support for the package is not just an academic one of interest to political buffs and Washington insiders: An important aspect of any effort to spark the economy is strentgthening the confidence of consumers, business and the markets.