A veteran pollster's advice to Obama

Nine months ago, T-shirts and posters portrayed Barack Obama as Superman. Today, he is looking like a very mortal politician who is having a hard time pleasing anyone.The right demonizes him and his efforts to offer conservatives an open hand have only alienated his supporters on the left. Independents see little economic progress, are confused about healthcare reform, and hear the same old partisan noise coming from Congress. Our Zogby Interactive polling shows a steady decline in Obama's job approval, which was down to 42% at the end of August. That is six points lower than it was on July 24. Over that six-week period, Obama lost 13 points on his approval rating from Democrats and 18 points from First Globals (18-29-year-olds). Obama's party cannot afford to lose the enthusiasm of Democrats and young voters going into the 2010 mid-term elections. There are plenty of second-guessers about what Obama should have done to prevent his diminished political standing. But given the problems he inherited, it might have indeed taken a political Superman to maintain his post-election popularity. It's safe to say that no one since Franklin D. Roosevelt has faced such daunting combined economy and diplomatic challenges. FDR was able to use his Democratic Congressional majorities to push through the New Deal, and effectively painted the Republican opposition as tools of wealthy bankers and industrialists. Being confrontational just isn't in Obama's makeup and today's political climate is far different than that of the 1930s. Today, Senators see themselves as free agents and expensive campaigns still require cash from big business. As for Republicans, their opposition to all of Obama's initiatives may have looked like good politics in August, but putting up stop signs is not an agenda that wins elections. However, the GOP may be finding that Obama won't fight back, and there is no greater problem for a politician than the appearance of weakness. So what should Obama do to assure independents and still win back the energy and trust of his Democratic base? The average American must begin to see some progress on the economy. Earlier this year, our polling showed a public understanding that it would take at least a year for the economy to recover. But that was not an unlimited free pass. Even though there will be no immediate dramatic change in unemployment, Obama and his surrogates must campaign across the nation to showcase communities where the stimulus is creating jobs, or at least stopping their loss. New green jobs would be especially attractive to both liberals and moderates. Such a media campaign appears to already be in the works. There is no similar obvious strategy for healthcare reform. The man who showed such great communications skills in the campaign has failed to make a convincing argument for healthcare reform. That has to end in his speech on Wednesday to Congress and the nation. Obama must be concise and deliver effective sound bites. He must make it crystal clear why he believes that doing nothing will only lead to higher premiums and more insecurity. So people who have not already made up their minds need to hear how reforms will lower their costs and keep them secure. If the family next door loses its coverage, you could be next. And even though your neighbor has no insurance, you still wind up paying for the care they will receive through higher premiums. It's a complex topic to explain, even for Obama. Liberals are waiting to hear what Obama will say about the public option, which has become a litmus test. Their disappointment with Obama over bank bailouts, detainees and Afghanistan has reached a boiling point over healthcare reform. Conventional wisdom says that Obama will not fight for it, and that liberals will have no choice but to support a plan without a government program to compete with private insurers. That's how liberals typically reacted during the Clinton years. However, Obama brought in new voters who are not familiar with that script, and they could bolt away from politics if they continue to be denied a happy ending. Also, Obama's defeat of Hillary Clinton was, in part, a rejection by progressive Democrats of her husband's triangulation strategy that isolated the left. Unless they can come up with an alternative to the public option that satisfies their liberals in the House and their more conservative Senators, Democrats will be playing a dangerous game of chicken with each other. Democrats must pass a healthcare bill, and I believe they will. The final product won't please all Democrats, especially liberals. Then, Obama must heal intra-party rifts by reminding liberals that healthcare is one detour, and that there is more that brings all Democrats together than tears them apart. The President must remind liberals that he is different, that he is delivering a better U.S. image abroad, making significant progress on global warming initiatives, and safeguarding stem cell research. He has appointed the first Hispanic woman to the Supreme Court and may fill at least two more seats during his first term. Obama already has a model for doing that: his own Presidential campaign and how it began with themes that appeal to both the left and center, and especially to young voters, who do not easily fit under traditional ideological labels. He must hit the road, including to college campuses, and promote initiatives that are green, global, and exciting. Even after a very tough summer, Obama is still the nation's most popular politician. Most people want him to succeed, and their goodwill gives Obama time and opportunity to do so. John Zogby is the president & CEO of Zogby International and the author of "The Way We'll Be: A Transformation of the American Dream."

********** Published: September 11, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 21