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First thoughts: Back to Nov. 3, 2008

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Back to Nov. 3, 2008: Perhaps the most striking observation from the new NBC/WSJ poll is how Barack Obama's standing has returned to where it was right before Election Night. His job-approval rating has dropped to 53%, which just happens to be the percentage of the popular vote he won in November. His approval among independents and Republicans is, respectively, 49% and 16%, which is fairly close to his exit-poll scores with these groups. And Obama's fav/unfav in our poll is 55%-34, which is almost identical to his fav/unfav in our mid-October 2008 NBC/WSJ poll. How did we return back to 2008? One obvious explanation is the health-care debate, which has turned into a Democrat-vs.-Republican fight. In fact, the 16% of Republicans approving of Obama's job is a five-point decline from our June survey and a nine-point one since April. NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) says Obama had been flying above the partisan fray, but he's now come back down to earth. "The question I asked back in February was: When does political gravity take hold? The answer is in this survey. It is happening now."

Video: MSNBC's Carlos Watson and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., discuss whether the Blue Dog Democrats and Republicans can work together to fight President Barack Obama's health care plans.

*** Health care & stimulus numbers slipping: Speaking of health care, our poll also shows that the more Obama has campaigned on the issue, the worse his numbers have become. In it, 42% now say that the president's plan is a bad idea, which is a 10-point increase since last month; only 36% say it's a good idea. In addition, 39% -- a plurality -- believe that Obama's plan would result in the quality of their health care getting worse, which is a 15-point jump since April. And just 41% approve of the president's job on health care, which is nearly identical to Bill Clinton's scores from 1994, when he failed to get Congress to pass health reform. (Just asking, but what happens to Obama's health numbers this fall, when there might be a shortage -- and rationing! -- of swine-flu shots?) A final note about health care: Support for a public insurance option decreases (to 46%-44%) when you take out the word "choice" from last month's survey. What's more, health care isn't the only domestic priority for Obama that has become less popular. According to the poll, 43% now believe the stimulus was a bad idea, which is up 16 points since January. Indeed, the NBC/WSJ survey finds that the public's top concern about Obama's young presidency is that he has spent too much money.

*** The GOP's new edge on the deficit/controlling spending: How concerned is the public with spending? Concerned enough that the GOP now has a six-point advantage over the Democrats on which party do you trust more on reducing the deficit -- which is the first time Republicans have led on this question since 1997 (!!!). Moreover, the GOP now has advantages over the Democrats on controlling government spending and taxes. And that could make Obama's job to sell a health-care bill (and the tax increases that would pay for it) more difficult. Still, the Democratic Party maintains its edge over the GOP on health care, energy, getting the country out of recession, and the economy, although those advantages are smaller than they were a year ago. Overall, the Democratic Party's fav/unfav rating is 42%-37%, while the GOP's is 28%-41%.

*** 1994 or 1982? Looking ahead to 2010, one other thing that has declined for Democrats is their edge in the generic ballot. According to our new poll, Americans prefer a Democratic-controlled Congress over a GOP-controlled one, 46%-39%. But that seven-point advantage for Democrats is their smallest edge here since April 2006. Much of the increase comes from white men and white women. While a seven-point Dem advantage doesn't suggest a change in power like we saw in 1994, NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) says next year's midterms could look a lot like 1982, when the Democratic Party picked up seats after Ronald Reagan's first two years in office. "To me, 2010 is looking to be much like 1982," he said. "It's going to be a bad year for the incumbent party. It may not affect the president as much as it will affect the party and the makeup of the Congress." Another thing to note from the poll: The GOP has increased its strength in the South, and the regional splits between the parties look like they did pre-Katrina.

Video: MSNBC political analyst Laura Flanders talks about the GOP's continued criticism of the stimulus despite the Federal Reserve's report that most of its 12 regions have either stabilized economically or have seen a leveling off in the pace of the economic decline.

*** Biden, Pelosi, Romney, Clinton, and Palin: Despite the decline in his numbers, Obama (with a 55%-34% fav/unfav) is still the most popular politician measured in our poll. Vice President Biden's score is 38%-36% (reflecting the fact that when he gets into the news, it's usually because he did or said something wrong); House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's is 25%-44%, Mitt Romney's is 28%-20% (look what happens when you stay out of the news!); Hillary Clinton's is 53%-31%; and Sarah Palin's is 32%-43%. Looking at Palin and 2012, the poll shows that a whopping 67% of the public -- and 43% of Republicans -- say they would NOT like to see her as president someday. By comparison, 50% of Americans -- and 33% of Republicans -- say they don't want to see Romney become president.

*** Focus group time: As Peter Hart notes, poll numbers alone don't always tell you the entire story, however. And last night, he conducted a focus group with 12 independent voters in Towson, MD (outside of Baltimore) that one of your First Read authors attended. Seven of these indies voted for Obama last year, four voted for McCain, and one voted for Nader. We'll have more on this focus group in tomorrow's First Thoughts, but here are the quick highlights: Despite the drop in Obama's poll numbers, these participants -- even those who voted for McCain -- expressed hope and some positive feelings for the president. Yet they also expressed concern about the speed at which the president was moving on issues, particularly health care. Also, Michelle Obama won rave reviews from the participants, while Biden didn't.

Video: Many conservatives feel health care proposals are being rushed and were hoping Blue Dog Democrats would take their side. Rep. Mike Pence, D-Ind., discusses whether the Blue Dogs' decision to negotiate with Democratic leaders may hurt the prospect of a bipartisan health care bill.

*** The Great American Health Care Fight: Blue Dogs struck a deal with House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman yesterday, but the agreement has angered liberals… NBC's Ken Strickland reports that although Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for the Senate Finance Committee to complete its bill before the August recess, two GOP negotiators (Grassley and Enzi) suggested that it probably won't happen… And finally, a last word about the Blue Dogs: Our new NBC/WSJ poll measured that group (white Democrats who aren't liberals), and found that while they overwhelmingly approve of Obama's job, they agree with him less on the issues. Just 46% of them think he's taking the country in the right direction, and only 41% think his stimulus package was a good idea. And you wonder why these Blue Dog congressmen are reluctant on health care…

Video: Why no Boston beers or microbrews for today's beer summit? NBC's Domenico Montanaro previews Obama's day.

 *** Obama's day: At 3:00 pm ET today, Obama meets with Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. And then three hours later comes his much-anticipated beer with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officer James Crowley. There will be a pool spray of the men gathering.

*** Pawlenty's day: Finally today, retiring Minnesota Gov. (and potential 2012 candidate) Tim Pawlenty addresses the Republican National Committee's meeting in San Diego today. Per a source close to Pawlenty, the governor will introduce himself and lay out the case why Obama's policies are taking the country in the wrong direction. Talking about the budget, Pawlenty will emphasize the fact that he balanced the budget every year (which almost all governors have to do). On health care, he will criticize Obama's plan, saying it will "replace independence with dependence and increase costs." And on foreign policy, he will mention that he has just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Countdown to Election Day 2009: 96 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 460 days

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