Obama Cashes in on Auto-Bailout Success, but Skepticism of Government Remains

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Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg / Getty Images

General Motors Co. (GM) vehicles move along the body shop production line at company's assembly plant in Lake Orion, Michigan, Feb. 21, 2012. The company earned $9.19 billion last year, the largest annual profit in its 103-year-history.

On Thursday, Pew released some timely data on three major federal undertakings that defined the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term: the bank bailout, passed under George W. Bush just before Obama took office; the stimulus plan, Obama’s flagship economic initiative; and the 2009 rescue package for the big three U.S. automakers, which the President is highlighting in ads this week. The numbers illustrate both why Obama has chosen the auto bailout to make his case for re-election, and why Mitt Romney continues to talk about his own vociferous opposition to the policy. If that sounds like a contradiction, that’s because it is. Such is the nature of the American public’s view of government.

The Pew survey found unwavering distaste for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which 52% of Americans see as “wrong,” almost exactly where it stood a year ago. Approval for the Recovery Act hasn’t moved either, though fewer Americans now have a negative impression of it, and the nation remains split on the merits of the stimulus plan, 37% in favor, 41% opposed. However, a 56% majority, including 44% of Republicans, now say the auto bailout was “mostly good for the economy,” up 19 percentage points since October 2009. And that’s the kind of good will Obama is trading off in Michigan.

But in polling, how a question is framed matters quite a bit. Gallup this week approached the auto rescue issue in a different way and found that 51% of Americans “disapproved” of the bailout. It may be counter-intuitive, but this figure does not refute Pew’s findings. People can simultaneously recognize a policy’s positive impact and frown upon its principles. Despite divided opinion on whether the stimulus plan was worthy of approval, 61% of Americans, including a third of Republicans, in the Pew survey said it was mostly good for the economy, an even better number than the auto bailout.

So what gives? Why do people disapprove of policies they may think are effective and how does Romney see his position as an asset? The answer in Pew’s data is that many Americans remain opposed in abstract to the very idea of government intervention. A full two-thirds of respondents said the federal government has a negative effect overall. By a 52% to 40% margin, they also said that government regulation of business “usually does more harm than good.”

(MORE: Will The Auto-Bailout Factor in Michigan?)

It’s this philosophy that Romney can build his argument on. “The idea that the government continues to hold shares in General Motors and calls the shots there is not consistent with American free enterprise,” Romney told a Detroit radio station on Thursday. “We need to get the government out of these companies’ hair and let them go to work to become competitive—not only in the U.S. but globally.”

Romney may be having his cake and eating it too in this case—he backed TARP and said in Wednesday’s debate that “no way would we allow the auto industry in America to totally implode and disappear”—but Republicans have a strong case to make against regulation and intervention in the next election. That is, as long as they steer clear of most specifics.

Just as Americans have a negative opinion of Obama’s health care overhaul as a monolith while liking many of its individuals pieces, specifics are where the appeal of a hands-off bureaucracy begins to break down. When Pew asked what should become of regulations on everything from food production to prescription drugs, very few Americans (no more than 20% on any issue) actually called for a reduction. Pluralities favored strengthening regulations in most cases.

Public opinion polling, especially on policy, is shot through with these kinds of contradictions. And they’re something that Obama and his opponent will have to navigate carefully this year. After all, USA Today/Gallup  found that 50% of Americans see the President’s tenure as a failure… the same percentage that rates him favorably.

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