— TOWSON, Md. - The past wave of public polling, including Wednesday’s NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, hasn’t been terrific news for the Obama White House.
The president’s job-approval numbers have declined, although they remain above 50 percent. His standing on health care has dropped. And Republicans now find themselves, at least in the NBC/Journal survey, with an advantage over Democrats in which party would do a better job reducing the deficit — the first time the GOP has led on this question in 12 years.
But according to Peter D. Hart, the pollster who conducts the NBC/Journal survey with Republican Bill McInturff, poll numbers don't always tell the entire story.
That’s why Hart held a focus group Wednesday in the Baltimore area with 12 self-described independents to evaluate the first six months of Obama's presidency.
Seven of these independents voted for Obama in last November’s presidential contest, four voted for Republican John McCain and one voted for Ralph Nader. All the participants were white men and women, except for one African-American man.
While a few of them expressed negative opinions about Obama — saying they were “worried” or “afraid” — those who voted for him remained mostly supportive. And even half of the McCain voters said they were pulling for the president.
Remi, a 60-year-old Obama voter, praised his ability to communicate. Lou, a 63-year-old graphic designer who also voted for him, called the president “brilliant” and commended his willingness to deal with tough issues and improve the nation’s reputation overseas.
Jeanne, a 56-year-old registered nurse who voted for Obama, said this when asked to evaluate his first six months in office: "I feel confident he'll get it done."
And Nora, a 54-year-old dental hygienist who also voted for Obama, observed, "He's not Superman," before adding, “I feel hopeful."
Obama vs. other politicians
Even Dave, a 39-year-old forklift driver who cast his vote for McCain, said he was “reluctantly hopeful" about Obama, acknowledging that he has a lot on his plate. And fellow McCain voter Marsha, 59, also remarked that she was “hopeful.”
By contrast, the participants weren't shy about expressing their complaints about the current state of the country or other politicians.
Words like “dismal,” “drained,” and “stagnant” were used to describe the nation’s direction.
On Vice President Biden: “useless” and “embarrassing.”
On former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin: “idiot,” “comical,” “nutty,” and “go away.”
But those kinds of sharp words weren’t directed at Obama — by either the independents who voted for him or against him. “Don’t get fooled by the [poll] numbers,” said Hart, who conducted the focus group for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “There is something strong there” on attitudes about Obama.
That said, not every participant was positive about the president. Jennifer, a 48-year-old woman who voted for McCain, said, "I think the honeymoon is over."
Alex, 27, who was the sole African American and who voted for Obama, was pessimistic. "I'm not hopeful. I don't think he'll be able to pull it off."
Raymond, 44, who voted for McCain, called Obama "hopeless and change-less."
The participants’ biggest concern about the president — from both supporters and opponents — was his pace. "I'm very worried about the speed," said Jennifer, the McCain voter. "I don't think he can write a comprehensive health-care bill in six months."
Cautioned Tom, a 37-year-old accountant who voted for Nader, "Everything does not work at the speed of light."
Scott, a 35-year-old Obama voter who’s currently unemployed, added: "Some things he needs to slow down on."
“They are saying, ‘Slow down, Mr. President,’” concluded Hart after the two-hour focus group.
There also was concern about Obama's strength and backbone. When Hart asked the participants to fill in the blank to the phrase "Obama's spine is made of…," some McCain voters responded with "plastic" and "sand." Obama voters said "steel" and "metal."
In addition, many of the participants often called Obama by his first name, Barack, which Hart said suggested an ease and intimacy with the president.
Despite the building conventional wisdom that Obama might be overexposing himself as he campaigns for health-care reform, many of these independents said they enjoyed his numerous press conferences and town-hall meetings.
Michelle Obama won plenty of kudos (they called her “beautiful,” “great role model,” “educated”).
So did Hillary Clinton (“smart,” “intelligent,” “relentless,” “great”).
When given a list of notable political figures and asked whom they did not want to sit next to on a long flight, six said Rush Limbaugh, four said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and two said Palin.
And when asked whom they would like to sit next to, eight said Obama, two said McCain, one said Hillary and one said Limbaugh.
Finally, this was perhaps the most amusing nugget from the focus group: When asked which couple they would invite to go on a vacation, six said the Clintons, three said the Obamas, two said the Palins and one said the McCains.
The reason for inviting the Clintons? "I want to have fun," said one participant. "Bill's a party guy," added another.
But when Hart asked whom they would invite if they found out that only Hillary would attend — and not Bill — not a single one said they'd want to vacation alone with the secretary of state.