The new New York Times/CBS News poll is rife with bad news for President Obama and the Democrats, not simply for what it says about Obama's standing with voters but also for what it says about the voters themselves.
On the first point, Obama's straight numbers are bad and/or getting worse. He remains under water on handling of the economy (41 percent approve, 52 percent disapprove), the budget deficit (33-57), and gun policy (41-52, a six point swing from February when he was at 44-49). And while voters approved his handling of immigration in February, 46-41, he's now at 44-45.
But wait, it gets worse. Only 22 percent of respondents approve of the way Republicans in congress are handling their jobs, while 69 percent disapprove, but the congressional GOP has shown marked gains over the president in the public's trust. In January, voters trusted Obama over congressional Republicans to make the right decisions on the economy by a margin of 50-35; now that margin is down to 43-39, just outside the poll's three percentage point margin of error.
On the budget deficit, the hated Republicans have actually pulled into a statistical tie with the president – 42 percent prefer Republicans to 41 percent for Obama – after the president led 50-37 in January. Trust on the gun issue saw a similar flip with the public going from favoring Obama (47-39 in January) to a statistical tie now, with 44 percent trusting Republicans and 41 percent trusting Obama. And while there's no trend on immigration, it's another statistical dead heat: 43 percent for Obama and 40 percent trusting the GOP.
That's one level of bad. The broader level of ill tidings for Obama is that the public doesn't particularly trust him on the issues even though across the board they overwhelmingly agree with him. Take the budget deficit. The public is split between Obama and the GOP, but on the specific policy question a strong majority prefers Obama's approach to reducing the deficit (57 percent favor a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts) to the GOP's solution (36 percent favor cutting spending alone to solve the deficit).
Or let's look at guns. Again the public is split between Obama and the GOP in the abstract, but majorities of respondents favor Obama's specific policy positions. So 54 percent think that gun laws should be stricter, with only 33 percent favoring the status quo; and a now familiar overwhelming majority – 88 percent – favor universal background checks for gun buyers; and a solid majority is either disappointed (40 percent) or angry (19 percent) that the "Senate recently voted AGAINST several measures that would have made the laws covering gun sales more strict." (Emphasis theirs – I include the poll's language there in order to note that it is misleading; given that a majority of senators voted in favor of universal background checks I don't think it's entirely accurate to say that the Senate voted against them.)
Or take immigration, which is admittedly a somewhat less clear-cut partisan issue as several high profile Republicans share the president's position, though most conservatives are rallying against it. Again, while the public is evenly split between Obama and the GOP, it overwhelmingly supports (83 percent) a path to citizenship if certain conditions are met ("paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks and learning English"). And while the default conservative position is that nothing should be done regarding citizenship until the border is certified as secure (and oh, by the way, huge strides have already been made in that direction), most Americans favor getting the citizenship ball rolling before the border is secure (56 percent favor it while the border is being strengthened and only 35 percent say we should wait until the border is secure).
To sum up: Voters strongly favor the president's approach over the GOP's on specific policy proposals while simultaneously claiming to be evenly split between the president and the GOP on the same policy matters. The public, in other words, doesn't know what it's talking about.
This sort of incoherence is nothing new in politics. And obviously it's better to have majorities agree with your specific policies than to have majorities disagree with your policies. But a president in his fifth year in office who can't get public support despite the public supporting his policies has a serious image and communications problem.