It’s a question we hear a lot in Washington. And hell, lots of times we ask it ourselves. The answer, of course, is that it depends. It depends on the day, and the mood of the electorate. It depends on who’s doing the judging and what party’s stripes he or she wears. And naturally, it depends on the issue.
Which is why some recent polling from Gallup is so darn interesting. For about two months, Obama has confronted energy head on. He’s given four speeches about American energy, oil independence, new production, the Keystone pipeline, renewable development and the “all of the above” mantra he stole from Republicans. He took a trip this month to New Mexico and Oklahoma to find rugged backdrops in front of wind turbines and oil rigs. In the mean time, Obama hasn’t made many public overtures about environmental policy. He hasn’t focused much on oceans or rainforest degradation or ocean acidification. He’s done only one event – a speech, at that – at the Department of Interior on habitat conservation. And he virtually dropped the ball on climate change policy, reeling in his Environmental Protection Agency and shelving cap and trade indefinitely until the economy picks up.
So you’d think Obama wants voters’ approval on energy, right around now when energy prices are ticking up and he’s trying to avoid blame. And you’d also think he doesn’t care about his approval on environmental issues, since no one’s really focused on the great outdoors as long as unemployment is high and consumer spending is low.
But you’d be wrong. Check out this graph from Gallup. It, in fact, shows the opposite. Despite all of Obama’s efforts, his approval on energy has stayed stagnant in the low 40s. On protecting the environment, it’s a stunningly higher 56 percent.
Why, is the obvious question. And I think there’s a reasonable explanation here. Elevating an issue in the national discourse elevates it in people’s minds, too. It makes people look and go “oh yes, the president is talking about energy, which reminds me, I’m going to think critically about energy for a moment, and oh yes, Obama has failed on all sorts of energy fronts…” Whereas with environmental policy, nothing major has really happened. That keeps it buried deep in people’s minds. And when a pollster calls up and says “Do you think the president is doing good things for the nation’s environment?” you’d answer with something like “well, uh, sure why not” without giving it a second thought.
You might call it the Sarah Palin effect. After she moistly disappeared from the public stage last year, her approval rating slowly ticked up. But every time she comes forward again in people’s mind to make public statements, either to endorse a candidate or decry some ongoing debate, her ratings plummet again. It’s an unfortunate reality for Palin and Obama’s energy approval. But it sure makes it look like a lot of folks like his environmental policy.