Reality and Poll Reporting are Poles Apart

George E. Curry | 9/8/2010, 11:24 a.m.

Almost every day, the public is bombarded with news reports that President Obama's standing in the polls is at the lowest level of his presidency.

While true, the reporting leaves out one critical fact: Obama's approval rating of 43 percent in the Gallup Poll of August 23 is below the levels of both Presidents Bush at this point in their White House tenure but roughly the same level as Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Carter.

And let's not forget that George Herbert Walker Bush, whose approval rating got up to 89 percent at one point, lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton and his son, George W. Bush, was so unpopular when he left the White House that Republicans did not want him to attend their national convention in the waning days of his presidency.

"Although there is nothing official about a 50% job approval rating in midterm election years, history shows that when presidents are at that level or higher, their party loses fewer seats than it does when their approval ratings are lower than 50 percent," according to the narrative that accompanies the latest Gallup poll.

"Looking beyond the midterm elections, one of the two presidents with the highest August second-year ratings (George H.W. Bush) was defeated for his re-election to a second term, while two of the three presidents with low ratings in August of their second year (Clinton and Reagan) were re-elected handily."

Polling numbers by CBS News mirror those of Gallup.

"At 44 percent, Mr. Obama's approval rating is similar to those of Bill Clinton (42 percent) and Ronald Regan (42 percent) at comparable times in their presidencies," Jennifer DePinto, manager of election and survey information for CBS News wrote. "Mr. Obama's rating is slightly higher than Jimmy Carter's (38 percent).

"Like Mr. Obama, these past presidents were plagued by economic troubles early in their presidencies - and Mr. Clinton attempted to reform health care. During the summer of 1982, President Reagan was trying to cope with a national unemployment rate of over 9 percent -similar to the job situation Mr. Obama confronts today."

Given this political history, talk of Barack Obama necessarily being a one-term president is just that - talk. Even when Obama inches ahead in the polls, it goes unreported by some news outlets.

For example, the Wall Street Journal reported: "As in recent polls, Americans are split on President Barack Obama's job performance, with 47% approving and 48% disapproving. But a majority disapproves of his performance on the economy. And six in 10, including 83 percent of independents and a quarter of Democrats, say they are only somewhat or not at all confident Mr. Obama has the right policies to improve it."

The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, taken August 9-12, did indeed show Obama with a 47 percent approval rating, 48 percent disapproval, and 5 percent unsure. However, his approval rating was up from 45 percent from the previous poll in June. The 2-percent increase took place while the disapproval numbers remained the same and the unsure segment decreased by 2 percent.

USA Today also failed to credit Obama with his slight improvement in its polls.

Susan Page, writing in the June 15 edition of the paper, reported their poll showed eight in 10 Americans expect the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to hurt the economy and drive up the cost of gas and food. It also reported 71 percent of respondents believed Obama had not been tough enough on BP.

Unreported was Obama's approval ratings had gone up 4 percent since the last poll in March to a respectable 50 percent. At the same point in his presidency, Reagan had a 45 percent approval rating.

Incomplete information and the over-reliance on polling have caused some Democrats to distance themselves from President Obama. They are doing so even though polling data shows that Americans trust Democrats more than Republicans to handle most major issues.

ABC News asked respondents in June, "Overall, which party do you trust to do a better job in coping with the main problems the nation faces over the next few years?" The answer: Democrats 44 percent, Republicans 32 percent and neither, 18 percent.

The USA Today/Gallup poll in May found Americans trust Democrats more on the environment, dealing with discrimination against people of color, unemployment, the size and power of large corporations, health care and solutions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans were favored on illegal immigration, the federal debt, the size and power of the federal government and terrorism.

Obama's poll numbers have suffered, in part, because of a weak economy and as a result of being pounded by conservatives on such phony issues as his religion. Although Obama has clearly and regularly professed his Christian faith, he is still targeted by Rush Limbaugh and others who emphatically assert - incorrectly - that he is a Muslim.

A poll released on August 18 by the Pew Research Center found that 18 percent of Americans think Obama is a Muslim. A Time magazine poll put the figure at 24 percent.

Equally disturbing, 43 percent in the Pew study said they "do not know what Obama's religion is." That means 61 percent of Americans are wrong or uninformed about the president's religion. Sixty percent of those who claim Obama is a Muslim said they learned it from the news media.

Contrary to what we have been led to believe, polls are not neutral tools. Norman Solomon, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the media watchdog group, observed: "We may believe that polls tell us what Americans are thinking. But polls also gauge the effectiveness of media spin - and contribute to it. Opinion polls don't just measure; they also manipulate, helping to shape thoughts and tilting our perceptions of how most people think."