A new poll from the Wall Street Journal and NBC reminds us of an important truism. For as much attention and time as some people (such as myself) pay to politics, many of the most volatile topics in punditry are nonvolatile mysteries to the rest of the country.
Much of the new poll doesn't do much to illuminate the dark corners of political thinking: Obamacare is still as unpopular as ever; Democrats and Republicans are about tied on the generic Congressional ballot. Fine, good. Here, instead, are the parts of the poll that struck me as being particularly interesting.
People haven't heard of several prominent political actors. If you read The Wire regularly — or, for that matter, any other site that talks politics — you probably not only have some sort of opinion of the Koch brothers but can articulate who they are, what they do, and what they advocate. That puts you, it appears, in a bare majority of Americans. Forty-nine percent of the country is not familiar with the Kochs. Twenty percent of the other half don't have a strong opinion about them.
The same goes for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the man who increasingly looks like he'll take over the reins of half of Congress next year. But 45 percent of the country isn't familiar with the guy.
Even Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who's been barnstorming the country and the cable networks for at least a year by now, is unfamiliar to over a quarter of the country. That will change; early scenes in the recent documentary about Mitt Romney's campaign showed him awkwardly introducing himself to voters who, four years later, would certainly know him by name. But for now: Who is Rand Paul?
More than half of Americans think the American dream is dying or dead. The pollsters asked people if they agreed or disagreed with this question: "Because of the widening gap between the incomes of the wealthy and everyone else, America is no longer a country where everyone, regardless of their background, has an opportunity to get ahead and move up to a better standard of living." That challenges the Horatio Alger American Dream, the pulled-bootstrap center of the American economy. And 54 percent of Americans agree with it.
Americans want a tough president, but for him not to worry as much about the rest of the world. One of the data points highlighted by the Journal was that 47 percent of Americans think that the country should be less active in global affairs — the highest level in four polls taken since 1995.
Yet, when it comes to international diplomacy, 55 percent of the country prefers "a president who will present an image of strength that shows America's willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles." Presumably, then, people don't see an immediate need to do much enemy-confronting. Also: Maybe Teddy Roosevelt should consider throwing his hat in the ring for 2016.
A plurality of the country still blames George W. Bush for the slow economy. A month after Obama took office in 2009, the pollsters asked people who was to blame for the struggling economy. Eighty-four percent said Obama inherited it; 8 percent apparently thought he had tanked it in 30 days. Now, after five years, people are still willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. Thirty-nine percent of Americans blame Obama's policies for the economy — but 47 percent believe that the problems in the economy are ones that Obama inherited.
And speaking of Bush:
Americans would like it if the next president weren't a Bush or a Clinton. Granted, we haven't had a Bush or a Clinton in the White House for five years or so, but Americans still seem rather unenthusiastic about the prospect of one returning to 1600 Pennsylvania.
Respondents were asked if they agreed with Barbara Bush's statement that, "There are more than two or three families that should run for high office in America." (Who is the third?) A solid 69 percent of Americans agreed that there should be more than those two or three, whoever they are.
People love the military, dislike the federal government, and really dislike big business. For this one, I made a graph. (Note that the scale is logarithmic, in order to show the movement better; data is a combination of those saying they had a "great deal" or "quite a bit" of confidence in the institution.)
Mousing over the lines shows the different institutions that the polling has asked questions about over the years. What's remarkable is how static they are; the military and tech have always done well, for example. But corporations plummeted after the market crash in 2000, and have stayed low for a while. The auto industry saw a big uptick as companies slowly rose to their feet after nearly going (or going) bankrupt.
I will note, with some satisfaction, that the media earns only slightly less confidence than religious leaders and religious institutions. Not that this will be controversial.
People still generally oppose Obamacare, but it hasn't affected them. Another graph! This one shows the net opinion of Obamacare over time — that is, the number of people who approve of the policy minus those those disapprove of it.
As you can see … it hasn't changed that much. It's been generally unpopular essentially since it passed. But at this point, four months into it kicking into effect, most Americans have no actual experience with Obamacare. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that it had no impact on their lives.
So there you go, the giant grain of salt that you should use to accompany the daily ups-and-downs of what happens in American politics. If you track those daily ups-and-downs, you are in the minority.