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Letting The Game Come To Him

The latest Gallup Poll has a fair amount of bad news for Republicans confident they've been "winning" the stimulus debate: 67 percent of Americans approve of the way Barack Obama has handled the stimulus bill, while just 25 percent disapprove. For the GOP Congress, those numbers are 31 percent approval vs. 58 percent disapproval. (Congressional Democrats split the difference with 48 percent approval to 42 percent disapproval.) Nor does the Republican assault seemed to have tarnished broader confidence in Obama, with 55 percent of respondents saying they have more confidence than they did at inauguration in Obama's ability to "improve the economy" (versus 17 percent who report less confidence) and 51 percent saying they have more confidence in his ability to "manage the federal government" (versus 18 percent with less).

Finally, Gallup finds the percentage of Americans who say it is "critical" to pass a stimulus bill to be 51 percent, "important but not critical" 29 percent, and "not that important" just 16 percent. Why? Because independents (who break down 51 - 27 - 17) are basically siding with Democrats (65 - 28 - 5), leaving the "stimulus? we don't need no stinking stimulus" Republicans (29 - 37 -31) on the wrong side of public opinion. Obviously it's just one poll, but these should be sobering numbers for a GOP that lately seems in the mood to perform victory laps.

David Weigel thinks Republicans are making two mistakes:

The first is that voters rejected them in 2006 and 2008 because they spent too much money; the subtext is that voters oppose big government spending, and reward the party that cuts it down. This seems like a tautological argument that’s not backed up by history — how much did former President Ronald Reagan cut spending, after all? The second false assumption is that Republicans are winning the spin war because their arguments are leading newspaper articles, columns and TV broadcasts. There’s a Republican senator or congressman making the anti-stimulus case on cable at basically any moment.

On the first point, the focus on spending has mostly been an after-the-fact attempt to write George W. Bush out of the conservative movement, so that the failure of his presidency wouldn't have to entail any ideological soul-searching. Anyone who truly belives that the (or even a) primary reason for Bush's unpopularity was his spendthrift ways really needs to get out more.

But I think Weigel's second point is the more interesting one: that winning the Beltway buzz battle and daily news cycles doesn't necessarily mean you're winning over public opinion. And I'm struck by how similar this feels to any number of moments last year--in the primaries against Clinton, over the summer against McCain, at the height of post-convention Palinmania--when elite political opinion held that Obama was drifting/fading/allowing his opponents to frame the debate and Dramatic Action was required to get things back on track. In each case, Obama made adjustments, but usually less radical than other candidates might have, and in less of a hurry. And each time, things worked out pretty well for him. (The debates, of course, were another occasion when the elite pundit consensus failed to appreciate the fruits of his slow and steady approach.)

Now, I do think Obama let the stimulus debate get away from him to a dangerous degree--and the evidence suggests that he does, too. But this is looking like another occasion when the panic felt by some of his supporters--and the sense, on the part of his opponents, that there is blood in the water--may prove to be premature.

 --Christopher Orr