Polls don't lie. If anything, they tell too many truths. But news editors present front-page results in fragments, usually picking the most sensational numbers at the expense of more telling ones. It's not malice. It's not journalism, either. It's a form of narrative herding that feeds assumptions instead of challenging them. The distortions can be fatal to good policy.
Take last month's New York Times/CBS News polls. One of them asked the usual question about presidential approval. The result was 50 percent, about where Barack Obama has been in most polls for weeks. The Times had also polled unemployed adults and asked them the same question. Approval among them was 61 percent. That number, extremely telling in my opinion, wasn't reported in the Times story about the poll of the unemployed, which focused more on who had insomnia and how many children of the unemployed had anxiety -- interesting numbers but hardly the sort that tell you anything about public policy, like that counterintuitive 61 percent. (The number is deep inside the raw 22-page poll results, which, to The Times' credit, are available online).
When the economy tanks, the president and his party pay the price in lower approval ratings. The jobless are last to reward the president. So, what's going on? This is: For the first time in any recession, including the Great Depression, health-insurance coverage for the unemployed was vastly expanded and made cheaper, unemployment insurance was expanded and homeowners, the jobless among them, got multiple lifelines to ward off foreclosure.
The segment of the population hurting most from the recession, in other words, got the most direct help. Those in the 61 percent likely aren't complaining about the stimulus packages or federal debt. They're grateful they still have homes and insurance for their families.
The proportion disapproving of the president's performance is much higher among those who still have jobs -- those more worried that their taxes might be slightly higher (they'd be wrong: Obama lowered them for most) or their health-insurance choices more restricted if they endorsed his proposed reform (they'd also be wrong: they'd be broader) than that they'd be homeless.
There's a similar disconnect in health polls, which now show a sizable majority opposed to "health care reform," whatever that is, but not to proposals in their particulars. Big majorities still think the uninsured should be covered, that government has a responsibility to cover them, that a government-backed public insurance system competing with private insurers is a good idea, even that Medicare should be expanded. Bundle all those proposals under "health care reform," and you get a big fat "No" -- not from those who don't have insurance or jobs but from those who do: the employed, the retired, the rich. In sum, what "rebellion" there is about Obama and his agenda isn't the cry of the dispossessed. It's the rasp of the misers. It's the size of a national character diminishing in tandem with its presumed returns. The greediest generation is in its prime.
The radical change isn't the kind Obama supposedly wants to inflict on the country. It's America's radical change from what it was in the middle of the last century to what it has become since the 1980s. When Franklin Roosevelt increased Americans' taxes faster and more than ever before, and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower raised them even more, they paid up. There was a Depression to get out of, fascism to defeat, a postwar world that wasn't even our own to rebuild, a Cold War to prosecute and a national debt much fatter than it is now (in relation to the economy) to pay down. We did it all. And got richer for it, because taxes were seen for what they are -- "what we pay for a civilized society," in Oliver Wendell Holmes' words. The generosity spilled over to the 1960s in the form of the Great Society, when Americans turned toward each other and extended a further hand. The country was rich and confident. It could afford it.
It still can. But, for a generation, Americans have been turning on each other for being too fearful of losing what they have. It's not responsible government they want. Quite the opposite. They're worried about the end of the decades of dole -- of the tax cuts and artificially cheap credit and God-bless-us-chauvinism that posed as reinventions of American power even as it plundered that power to the point of catastrophe. We paid the price in 2008 and 2009.
Obama, more conservative than Bush ever was, was elected to clean it up. He had the right idea and the right words at Grant Park a year ago: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible," he said, "tonight is your answer." It turns out that night of courage, Obama's included, was the aberration. We're still addicted to the dole.