Voters across the political spectrum reacted very favorably to President Obama’s focus on creating an economy “built to last” in his 2012 State of the Union address last month, according to focus group testing and follow-up discussions with 50 swing voters in Denver, Colo. A recent ABC/Washington Post poll also underscored the positive response among those who viewed the speech nationally, according to the Democratic polling organization, Democracy Corps.
The president was most effective when he focused on fixing Washington and changing the economy and tax regime to foster American jobs and protect the middle class from higher taxes, the pollsters say.
The strongest sections of the speech addressed new strategies for energy and education. He made his biggest personal gains on “being for the middle class,” “understanding issues that are important to my life,” and “bridging the partisan divide.” The speech also produced important gains on key issues—energy and taxes. These were significant shifts and compare favorably to previous joint session addresses, according to the pollsters.
The president’s overarching message of “built to last” had broad appeal. These Denver voters were particularly drawn to the his plans to build strong foundations for the future; they found his most far-sighted and fundamental ideas the most appealing—corporate accountability, insourcing, energy development, education and job training, and tax reform (the “Buffett rule.”)
Additionally, Obama’s consistent theme of responsibility and accountability received a welcome audience with these voters who told us that changing the way things are done in Washington and on Wall Street is a prerequisite to improving the economy, the pollsters say.
The president made gains on approval and personal standing, though modest when compared to his previous speeches. He improved just 4 points on “has realistic solutions to the country’s problems,” compared to 34 points last year and an average improvement of 18 points in past State of the Union exercises. On “has good plans for the economy,” the president gained 18 points, half last year’s 36-point post-speech improvement. His approval rating on the economy climbed 14 points, compared to an average of 20 points over the last four years.
This was not an easy audience for Obama. The swing voters tested in Denver were far more Republican-leaning than Democratic (44 to 32 percent). And while just over half of the participants (54 percent) voted for President Obama in 2008, at the outset majorities gave him negative ratings on key issues and attributes, including his handling of the economy.
Deciding not to address the deficits, the president not surprisingly made no headway on fiscal responsibility (+2). While Obama made many proposals in the address, focus group participants were skeptical that Congress would move on anything, thus his only gaining 4 points on “having realistic solutions to the country’s problems.”
The economy was obviously the most important element of the speech – and it is important to underscore, he achieved almost 20-point gains on “having good plans for the economy” and “creating new jobs.”
Nonetheless, these are not the kind of improvements on the economy we have seen in the past and there is reason for some caution in reactions to some important economic sections of the speech. While there is strong support for the Buffett rule and asking top earners to contribute their fair share of taxes, voters did not move their dials up in key parts of the narrative on the state of the country.
- Job creation: President Obama highlighted job creation over the last two years—progress many Americans have yet to feel. Voters responded negatively to this section of the speech and highlighted it as a negative in post-speech focus groups.
- Fairness: The president called this the “defining issue of our time.” While voters support many of the policies he recommended to restore fairness (the Buffett rule, for example), this was not his strongest framework or entry point to those policies.
- America is back: At the conclusion of the speech, President Obama argued that “America is back” and that “Anyone who tells you otherwise…doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” This section of the speech did not resonate for the voters in Denver and produced negative responses among Republicans and independents.
Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.