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Mark Shields - 08/07/09
Independent Voters' Jury Still Out

TOWSON, MD. - Those of us who live in Washington, D.C., do not make movies or airplanes. We do not raise corn or cattle. What Washington occasionally makes is public policy, and we constantly produce "conventional wisdom."

Here, just six months into the presidency of Barack Obama, in a two-hour focus group composed of 12 independent voters conducted by respected Democratic pollster Peter Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the prevailing conventional wisdom of the "everybody-in-the know - Inside the Beltway" variety sustained a brutal beating.

You may have heard the informed insiders' consensus, which announced that because of his daily, almost hourly, timetable of speeches, statements, events and press availabilities, that President Obama was being badly overexposed; the overscheduling by the White House had dissipated the voters' attention and diminished the president's influence with the public.

Wrong. Forget it. These independent voters welcome and appreciate seeing and listening to their young president. To Nora Seeley, 54, a dental hygienist, Mr. Obama is "more upfront ... I like it. He is showing himself." Remi Brooke, 60, a rental agent, endorses how Obama "explains to people so they can understand it." Louis Moriconi, 63, a graphic designer, says: "I like the way he communicates," while registered nurse Jeanne Chambers, 56, likes his "town-hall meeting style," which shows him to be "obviously very intelligent."

Up to now, the voters' familiarity with Mr. Obama has worked to his advantage. Pollster Hart commented afterward: "There's a sense of intimacy," which indicates "how unbelievably powerful his personal presence is."

Obviously, a 12-person focus group does not represent a scientific sample. And the president's job-approval numbers have been consistently declining over the past four months in established public polls (including the NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll for which Hart is half of the polling team.) But Hart makes the point that "raw polling numbers only tell half the story.

What we learned (in Towson) is that voters are still very much rooting for Barack Obama to succeed."

But the jury is still very much out on the new president's toughness. When asked directly what Obama's backbone is made of, only two answered "steel" or "metal." Other responses were less flattering. "Wet cement," said Marsha Welder, 59, manager of a security firm. "Wood," suggested 37-year-old Tom Stranger, an accountant, which was more positive than the reply of "plastic" by David Sawyer, 39, a forklift operator. Tim Polen, a 24-year-old student, the youngest in the group, explained that Obama's vertebrae were simply "bone and tissue" because "he's just human."

The 12 in Towson are still waiting for the inevitable crisis that will test Obama and reveal if his spine is steel or some more pliable substance.

When asked with which political family - the Obamas, McCains, Palins, or Clintons' - they would prefer to vacation, three picked the Republican choices, but only three respondents named the Obama family; half would rather hang out with the Clinton family. Moriconi volunteered: "Bill's a party guy." But when told that a medical matter might prevent Bill Clinton's vacationing, all six respondents said they would cancel.

Even those voters who are rooting for Obama think that he is moving too fast. They feel the nation needs a timeout. They urge him to slow down. Stranger put it this way: "I hope he has learned that everything does not work at the speed of light." The president, Chambers adds, "needs to develop a little bit of patience ..."

President Obama finds himself politically in rough seas. But, as we learned in Towson, he still inspires hope and support and he is far from alone.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.