Voters had a mostly positive view of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, but his dial test approval tended to drop among Independents when he proposed additional Federal spending. In addition, Independents tracked closely with Republicans throughout the response given by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, which primarily focused on fiscal issues. These key results are based on a dial test and a focus group discussion held with 30 voters in Columbus, Ohio (9 Democrats, 13 Independents, and 8 Republicans). The Independents were identified as undecided on whether they would re-elect President Obama.
Often linked to fiscal discipline and job creation, the President’s broad themes of innovation, education, and competitiveness recorded generally favorable dial test ratings. Yet support among voters dropped when they equated the new investments with additional Federal spending. Voters, especially Independents, raised questions about President Obama’s credibility on spending cuts, earmark reform, and the fight against frivolous medical malpractice cases. These lingering doubts were a recurring theme because, as one female swing voter commented, “He’s said a lot of the same things before.”
President Obama’s recent rise in approval ratings is likely to be reinforced by the State of the Union, but before any sustainable comeback among Independents is achieved, those swing voters will want to see a tangible policy shift implemented. It was President Obama’s policies that caused Independents to look more like Republicans starting in 2009, and how these voters perceive the White House’s agenda over the next few months will determine if there is any durability to this narrative.
The President’s health care reform bill enacted in the last Congress remains a source of dissatisfaction with voters, and his scant mention of this signature policy in the State of the Union resulted in one of the most significant drops among voters of all parties.
Of the 30 voters in the focus group discussion only three voters (all Democrats) believed the policies outlined stem from a “new Obama,” compared to the past two years.
On ten different areas of policy the public did not fundamentally shift on which party they prefer to address those issues. Comparing scores before the State of the Union to scores on the same question after Congressman Ryan’s response, the President gained a little ground on balancing the budget, an area on which participants continue to prefer Republicans. He also gained some ground on education, energy and the environment (topics not addressed by Ryan).
On the topics most likely to dominate the debate in Washington for the foreseeable future, after viewing both speeches, participants continue to have more confidence in Republicans. These include the economy, balancing the budget, taxes, spending, terrorism and even health care.
President Obama received general support from voters when discussing taxes and economic policies. On the issue of expanding free trade, President Obama received positive ratings from all partisan groups. Interestingly, these Ohio Democrats were steady in approval on the free trade remarks and at times recorded stronger intensity on this issue than Republicans and Independents. Voters showed similar support for cutting the corporate tax rate and plans to simplify the tax code.
Although there was some decline, voter response remained generally favorable when President Obama stated his opposition to making the “tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans” permanent. Failing to do so, voters were told, would result in deficit increases and spending cuts to education. Not surprisingly, support among Democrats stayed consistent, while Independents decreased slightly (from 9 to 7) and Republicans had the largest drop (from 8 to 5).
President Obama’s State of the Union may have helped him solidify or build on gains he made in the lame duck session of Congress when he embraced extending the Bush tax cuts, but voters – and particularly critical Independents – are waiting to see if his actions in the future match his words today. Republicans hold more credibility on the fiscal issue set, and those Independents continue to look like Republicans when it comes to their opinions of Federal spending and the debt.