Frank Luntz, Fox News and faux science take on Obama
Opinions of President Obama's State of the Union address will naturally vary. But we now should be able to reach a national consensus on one putrid post-address tradition: instant polling and focus groups.
At the end of the 62-minute address Tuesday night, Fox News aired what can only be called public opinion "show-data" -- faux science not worth the micro video-bytes it was embedded on. CNN committed a lesser, but still unnecessary offense: introducing a "flash" poll overweighted with Democrats.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that more rigorous national surveys have found something much more equivocal: After a long swoon, the president's approval rating has begun to recover in recent weeks. A composite of surveys at Pollster.com shows 49.8% of Americans approving of Obama's performance and 45.1% disapproving.
You wouldn't have gotten a hint that the nation is that closely divided from cable TV's noise makers.
Over at CNN, senior correspondent Joe Johns appeared not long after the House chamber emptied to tell us that, per expectations, television viewers of presidential addresses tend to be from the president's own party. Of the 475 questioned by CNN in its instant survey, "the vast majority" were Democrats.
Among that self-selecting group, Johns told us, 52% had a "very positive" impression of Obama's speech and 32% a "somewhat positive" impression. Just 15% reacted negatively. Further, 61% of those it surveyed "thought positively about the President's policies" before the speech, a figure that jumped up to 77% after watching the address.
It seemed barely illuminating that a group heavily tilted toward Obama stalwarts liked him even more after they heard him speak for an hour. At least CNN gave us enough information to know their poll came from anything other than a representative sample of Americans.
The group presented by Frank Luntz, not surprisingly, had even bigger problems. I say not surprisingly because the pollster has long been closely tied to the Republican Party and rigorous partisanship. Luntz is a master of wordplay who, among other things, helped Republicans devise their attacks on the healthcare reform legislation. Don't talk about a public option, he said. Call it a "government takeover."
As the nonpartisan Politifact.com reported, Luntz wrote in a 28-page memo to reform foes: "Takeovers are like coups. They both lead to dictators and a loss of freedom."
That gives you an idea where the Fox favorite comes from. Given his inherent credibility gap, Luntz might have begun his segment with Sean Hannity on Tuesday night by explaining a little bit about the 29 people he assembled in Atlanta.
Where did they come from? What was their party affiliation? How did they feel about Obama before the State of the Union? He did none of that.
Instead, the segment began with Hannity launching into his complaints about Obama, calling his speech "flat," uninspiring and disingenuous -- because Obama talked about cutting spending after the federal government ran up a huge debt fighting the recession.
Being a man of precision and science, Luntz moved to make sure that statement didn't taint his impartial panel. "I don't want you to feel under pressure because of what Sean Hannity just said," he told the group.
Thus put at ease, the panel was asked for one word to sum up Obama's performance. In a nation we know to be about evenly divided in its feelings about the president, these are the first seven answers Luntz got: "optimism, platitudes," followed by "empty ... redundant ... political ... not connected with America ... hyperbole ... Obama conflicting..."
Hmm. Must be a real pocket of Obama opposition in heavily Democratic Atlanta. And that pocket just happened to find its way into the front row seats on the set where Luntz staged this little tea party.
It went on in that vein: The bulk of panelists suggesting the lack of bipartisanship was clearly, unquestionably the fault of Obama, not the Republicans. One man even rated the president's promises as about as trustworthy as "romantic talk from Tiger Woods." (It had to be a coincidence that this fellow's two paragons of mendacity were two prominent African Americans.)
In case the anti-Obama feeding frenzy might stall, Luntz chummed the waters a little. He did it by misconstruing what the president said about the economy. While Obama stated that the "worst" of the recession had passed, Luntz asked the panel to respond to Obama's notion that "the recession is over."
Lo and behold, the vast majority of the panelists disagreed with something the president never said.
Toward the end of the segment, Luntz let viewers know that 13 of the 29 people he brought together had voted for Obama in 2008. As I recall, Obama won the last presidential election. But why start with a more closely balanced panel when you can present one that's so much more, more ... outspoken?
(Luntz told me via e-mail that the other 16 on his panel had voted for John McCain. Apparently explaining the imbalance, he added that "four invited Obama participants still didn't show." He did not immediately answer about the panelists' party affiliation or pre-speech sentiments about Obama.)
It was a bit anticlimactic when only seven of the onetime Obama supporters raised their hands when Luntz asked who was still "pretty well" behind the president.
Luntz had done his work by doing Hannity's work -- offering his faux science as proof that Obama is in political straits. "If I were Barack Obama watching this tonight," Luntz said, "I would be a little bit nervous."
The sequels could be coming up for days on Fox. It began Wednesday morning on "Fox & Friends," where Luntz used the same panel and similar tactics to prove that Obama wasn't even the real focus for most Americans on Tuesday night.
Instead, Luntz assured us that the man who really made the winning impression was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who gave the official Republican response. "Barack Obama was the focus," Luntz said, "but Paul Ryan seems to be the star."
-- James Rainey
Photo: Fox News host Sean Hannity hosted Republican pollster Frank Luntz on Tuesday night. Luntz used a focus group to suggest that President Obama is in political straits. Mainstream polling suggests a more divided view of the president. Credit: KABC-AM radio