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First Thoughts: Obama's fork in the road

NBC/WSJ poll shows that Obama faces fork in the road… After his rough last two months, does his second term end up like Bush’s?... Or is it more like Reagan’s (after Iran-Contra) and Clinton’s (after Lewinsky)?... Poll finds that health care is driving the public’s perceptions of the president… Economic optimism returns to pre-shutdown levels… Measuring the toll the last two months have taken on the Democratic Party… Polling Time’s person of the year -- Pope Francis… A prediction: More Democrats will vote for the budget agreement than Republicans will… Health-care enrollment improves… And when a handshake becomes controversial.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Affordable Care Act at the White House in Washington December 3, 2013.Joshua Roberts / Reuters file photo

*** Obama’s fork in the road: Our brand-new NBC/WSJ poll -- essentially similar to all the other national surveys released in the past 24 hours -- shows President Obama ending 2013 in tough shape two months after his administration’s botched health-care rollout. More Americans disapprove of his job performance than ever before (54%); half of the country says they’re either disappointed or dissatisfied with his presidency; and 54% believe he’s facing a long-term setback. But is it really a long-term setback, a la what George W. Bush experienced at this same time in his presidency? Or is it more of a short-term setback, a la what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton faced during their second terms? NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) compares Obama’s declining numbers to what happened to Bush after Hurricane Katrina, explaining that Bush afterward experienced a similar drop in job approval, in his fav/unfav rating, and in key presidential attributes. NBC/WSJ co-pollster Fred Yang (D) counters, however, that Obama is facing only one chief hurdle right now (health care) -- like both Reagan (Iran-Contra) and Clinton (Monica Lewinsky) encountered during their second terms. By comparison, Yang adds, Bush faced multiple episodes that weighed down his presidency (Katrina, Iraq, 2008 financial collapse). “As health care goes, so goes the Obama presidency for next year,” Yang says. That same could be said of the rest of his second term…

*** Health care is driving the public’s perceptions of Obama: Indeed, our NBC/WSJ poll finds that Obama’s decline has been shaped almost exclusively by health care. Asked which one or two issues have been most important in shaping their views about the president, the top response was the health-care law (58%) -- followed by the economy (25%), the government shutdown (23%), and the situations in Syria and Iran (16%). Also in the poll, just 34% believe the health law is a good idea (down 3 points from late October), while 50% say it’s a bad idea (the highest percentage here since the poll began asking this question). And by a 51%-43% margin, respondents say they’re bothered more by the administration’s troubled (but improving) federal website and some Americans losing their health plans, rather than by the GOP’s continued efforts to undermine the law. But there are also two silver linings for the Obama administration. One, just 26% believe the law “should be totally eliminated,” which is virtually unchanged from our last poll. And two, 58% say the law hasn’t had much of an impact on them or their families, suggesting that all the bad news associated with the health-care rollout could be temporary. In fact, if you combine that 58% with the 12% who tell us the law has had a POSITIVE impact on their lives, that’s 70% who say the impact is either neutral or positive.

*** Economic optimism returns to pre-shutdown levels: But the best news in the poll if you’re Obama, the Democratic Party, or an incumbent Republican or Democratic governor? Attitudes about the economy have returned to where they were before the government shutdown. In the poll, 29% say the economy will improve within the next year, which is up 12 points since early October (when the shutdown began) and up 6 points since late October (after it ended). And returning to our point above, it was a better economy that helped both Reagan and Clinton during their second-term troubles. That’s maybe the best political lens through which to view yesterday’s budget agreement: Economic certainty and ending the threat of another shut down -- even if it’s just for two years -- is probably going to help the economy. So that’s the good news for Democrats. The bad news? Despite the rebound in optimism, the Republican Party now holds a 10-point advantage on which party does a better job on the economy, which is its highest edge on the issue since 1994-1995.

*** The toll the last two months have taken on Democrats: Here’s another way to look at the toll the health-care rollout has taken on Obama and the Democratic Party. Immediately after the government shutdown, the president’s job-approval rating was at 47%; now it’s 43%. Immediately after the shutdown, Democrats held an 8-point edge on the generic ballot (47%-39%); now Republicans have a 2-point advantage (44%-42%). And immediately after the government shutdown, the Dem Party’s fav/unfav was 39%-40%; now it’s 36%-44%. Yet despite that decline for Democrats, the GOP’s own numbers remain worse. The party’s fav/unfav is 26%-51%, almost unchanged from where it was right after the shutdown (24%-53%). In addition, Democrats hold a 28-point advantage over the GOP when asked which party does a better job showing compassion and concern to people. And Dems have a 12-point edge on which party is more willing to work with the opposition party to pass needed legislation. Oh, and then there’s this: A majority of Americans -- 51% -- view the 113th Congress was “one of the worst” Congresses ever. That’s the highest percentage answer that way in a question dating back to 1990 (!!!).So that bipartisan budget agreement couldn’t have come at a better time for Congress.

*** Polling Pope Francis: Now given that Pope Francis is Time magazine’s person of the year, don’t miss these numbers from our NBC/WSJ poll: His fav/unfav rating is a stellar 57%-5%, but there’s an ideological split. Francis gets a 64% positive rating from liberals, 64% from Democrats, and 69% from Obama voters. On the other hand, conservatives give him a lower 45% favorable rating, Republicans are 50%, and Tea Party supporters 48%. And 9% of Tea Party supporters view him negatively, the most of any of the six groups. But the most important aspect to the new Pope is how he is improving the perception of the Catholic Church overall: 41% (including 58% of Catholics) say the new Pope and his recent statements and actions have made them MORE FAVORABLE toward the Catholic church, just 3% say it’s made them more negative. Talk about a brand improvement.

*** More Democrats will vote for the budget agreement than Republicans: Given the conservative reaction last night to the budget deal agreement between Sen. Patty Murray (D) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R), here’s a prediction: You’re going to see more Democrats vote for it than Republicans. Think about that for a second: More Democrats will vote for Paul Ryan’s compromise than Republicans. But no one can celebrate this budget deal. It’s the bare minimum -- it avoids a shutdown for the next two years. Then again, in this day and age, that’s progress.

*** Health-care enrollment improves: As NBC/WSJ co-pollster Fred Yang (D) said above, “As health care goes, so goes the Obama presidency for next year.” And as far as enrollment goes, things are getting BETTER for the administration, but they still have a WAYS TO GO. Per NBC’s Ali Weinberg, the administration has announced that 364,682 Americans have selected marketplace plans in the first two months of open enrollment (October and November). Of that number, 137,204 applied for plans on the federal exchange, and 227,478 on state-based exchanges. Per the math by NBC’s Sarah Blackwill, this means that there were 137,204 enrollments in the federal exchange in November -- up from 26,794 in October. And there were 148,087 enrollments in state-based exchanges in November -- up from 79,391 in October. Also, these are the numbers BEFORE that Dec. 1 date by which the administration said the federal website would be better-functioning for a vast majority of Americans.

*** When a handshake becomes controversial: Lastly, it’s a reflection of our current state of politics -- and the current state of our political media -- that President Obama shaking the hand of Cuba’s Raul Castro at yesterday’s Nelson Mandela memorial became a controversy. But here’s probably the best way to view it: Would you greet (or shake hands with) an estranged family member at a memorial service for a loved one? Or do you go out of your way to snub that person? In other words, is that day about you and your conflict? Or about that loved one who’s being memorialized lying in a casket?

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