NYT Shows Obama's Favorability, Approval Plummeting, Yet Stresses 'Edge Over G.O.P. With Public'

Give the New York Times points for nerve, anyway. Chief political reporter Adam Nagourney managed to take the paper's new poll, full of bad news for President Obama and Democrats, and to change the subject, twisting its findings to suggest that Republicans were the party in trouble, in Friday's front page story: "Obama Fares Better in Poll Than G.O.P." The online headline is similar: "Obama Has Edge Over G.O.P. With Public."

(Thursday night's CBS Evening News: "Obama's Disapproval Jumps, Couric Instead Stresses: 'Most Think His Priority is Serving the People'")

Nagourney, with co-writer Megan Thee-Brenan, entirely passed over several interesting tidbits from the poll (you can read a .PDF version here) which reflected badly on the prospects of Obama and the Democrats. The negative stuff that was brought to light was buried, while positive but irrelevant trends for Obama were placed up high, in paragraph three.

That's where Nagourney gave Obama credit for being on the popular side of the issue of gays serving openly in the military, an issue that wasn't even on the national agenda before Obama's State of the Union address two weeks ago. Meanwhile, deep public opposition to Obama's long-time signature issue - his health care plan - wasn't addressed until paragraph 10, and then only lightly.


At a time of deepening political disaffection and intensified distress about the economy, President Obama enjoys an edge over Republicans in the battle for public support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

While the president is showing signs of vulnerability on his handling of the economy - a majority say he has yet to offer a clear plan for creating jobs - Americans blame former President George W. Bush, Wall Street and Congress much more than they do Mr. Obama for the nation's economic problems and the budget deficit, the poll found.

They credit Mr. Obama more than Republicans with making an effort at bipartisanship, and they back the White House's policies on a variety of disputed issues, from allowing gays to serve openly in the military to repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The poll suggests that both parties face a toxic environment as the prepare to face voters in November. Public disapproval of Congress is at an historically high level, and huge numbers of Americans think Congress is beholden to special interests. Fewer than one in ten Americans say members of Congress deserve reelection.

As the party in power, Democrats face a particular risk from any wave of voter discontent; unfavorable views of the Democratic party are as high as they have been since the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, though Republicans continue to register an even worse showing on that measure. The percentage of Americans who approve of Mr. Obama's job performance, at 46 percent, is as low as it has been since he took office.

Obama's newest rating of 46% approval-45% disapproval is actually the lowest it's been in a joint NYT/CBS poll. CBS also conducts polls separately from the Times, and Obama registered a 46% approval-41% disapproval rating in a January 2010 CBS poll, which must be the figure Nagourney is referring to.

Nagourney failed to mention that Obama's numbers mark a steep decline from the last NYT/CBS poll taken in early December 2009, when Obama's approval vs. disapproval figure was 50%-39%.

Nagourney, hypersensitive to good news for Democrats, managed to tease out some more vague positives from the poll.

Still, the poll suggests that Mr. Obama and his party have an opportunity to deflect the anger and anxiety if they can frame the election not as a referendum on the president and his party, but as a choice between them and a Republican approach that is far less popular with Americans and yielded results under Mr. Bush that much of the nation still blames for the country's woes. That is what the White House has been attempting to do since the beginning of the year.

It surely doesn't hurt Obama's cause for the Times to go around asking people if they blame retired president Bush for all the country's current problems, especially since Obama's been saying much the same thing for the last 13 months.

It took the Times 10 paragraphs to vaguely mention the meat of Obama's problem: His misguided focus on health care at the expense of jobs.

The public has lost much of its enthusiasm for health care reform, and how Mr. Obama has managed it. He gets low marks for his handling of the deficit and the economy and the deficit. And the fact that 56 percent of think that Mr. Obama doesn't have a plan to create jobs is a distressing bit of news for a White House that in recent weeks had made an intensive effort to present Mr. Obama as concerned with the economy.

"Lost much of its enthusiasm" translates into a figure of 35%-55% approval vs. disapproval, down sharply from a figure of 42%-50% approval vs. disapproval on health care in December.

In an accompanying "Back Story" podcast, Nagourney clutched again for positive news for Obama, noting the public was much more apt to blame Bush, Congress, and Wall Street than the president.

Host: So, kind of in summary, Adam, what would you say the message, if you can draw one message out of this for the president and his party, what would it be?

Nagourney: Well I'm going to draw two. What is, you know, you guys have big problems here, which I don't think is news to anyone who has been following what's going on. But that there's opportunities here and that the fact that the president is not being blamed for a lot of stuff that, even if his approval ratings are dropping, people still seem to like the guy, and certainly like him better than Republicans.

Other bad findings for Obama weren't mentioned in the story at all, like the striking results of Question 14. Discussing Obama in the podcast, Nagourney insisted that "people still seem to like the guy," but this latest NYT/CBS poll shows that may no longer be the case.

14. Is your opinion of Barack Obama favorable, not favorable, undecided, or haven't you heard enough about Barack Obama yet to have an opinion?

The Times last asked that question, which differs slightly from the paper's standard "job approval" question, in July 2009. At the time Obama registered a 50% favorable rating, compared to just 23% not favorable. But today, Obama's favorable - not favorable ratings are almost even: 39% vs. 34%. Nagourney failed to address the falling figure in his story or podcast.

Another promising GOP tidbit not fit to print: The Republicans have narrowed what was a double-digit gap (22% Republicans - 37% Democrats) in party identification just five months ago into a mere two-point gap today (28% Republicans - 30% Democrats).

- Clay Waters is director of Times Watch, a division of the Media Research Center.