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Polls Find Wilson’s Outburst Against Obama Backfires

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, September 17, 2009)


President Obama’s attempt to explain his plans for health care reform to the American public in an address before a joint session of Congress last week appears to have paid off — with some unexpected help by the conservative Republican congressman who heckled him during his speech.

Two new polls released this week — one by CBS News and the other by the business-oriented Bloomberg News — show that Americans now give the president the "thumbs-up" for his handling of the health care issue, halting a weeks-long slide in Obama’s overall job-approval ratings. But the public remains sharply divided over whether the president clearly explained his plan and whether it would succeed.

Meanwhile, a third poll released by the Gallup Organization showed strong disapproval of Representative Joe Wilson’s "You lie!" outburst during the president’s address, with a solid two-thirds majority opposing the South Carolina Republican’s actions.

The Gallup Poll results came on the eve of the House vote Tuesday to rebuke Wilson for his heckling of the president, an incident unprecedented by a sitting member of Congress. The House voted 240-179 in favor of a "resolution of disapproval" — the least severe form of disciplinary action against one of its members.


Before his address, the president’s handling of the health-care reform issue was more negative than positive, with a CBS News poll taken from August 27 to August 31 showing 47 percent disapproved while only 40 percent approved. In a Gallup survey taken August 6 to August 9, 49 percent disapproved of Obama’s handling of the health-care issue, while only 43 percent approved.

Obama’s speech appears to have stopped his slide particularly with independent voters in the CBS poll, with his approval rating among this important voting bloc having risen as a result. But they remain sharply divided. Among Democrats, the president’s support solidified at 85 percent. Even among Republicans, Obama’s approval ratings rose slightly after his speech, but only 17 percent of Republicans back his health-care proposals.

Respondents in the Bloomberg survey, conducted Thursday through Monday, were slightly more approving of the president’s efforts after the speech as well, with 48 percent of respondents in favor and 42 percent opposed.

Nonetheless, at least half of respondents expressed doubts that Obama can fulfill his promises to veto legislation that adds to the federal budget deficit; to preserve the Medicare trust fund, particularly as the eldest of the 76 million Baby Boomers — those born in 1946 — approach their 65th birthdays in 2011; and to produce savings to help pay for prescriptions for Medicare patients.

“The debate seems to be about money, not about the need for reform,” Bloomberg News quoted Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Company, as saying. “When you look at specific planks, respondents like all of them.”

Selzer & Company, based in Des Moines, Iowa, conducted the poll for Bloomberg.

“I do think everyone should have health care, somehow,” said Judy Shaffer, a Bloomberg poll respondent in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, “[But] the deficit is going to go up so much higher. I think it’s really bad where it’s at right now.”

The 63-year-old Shaffer said the president’s address failed to allay her concerns about the impact that his plan will have on the deficit, and thus she remains opposed to it.


But while Americans remain divided over the success or failure of the president’s health-care reform plan, there is one thing they do agree on: That Wilson’s outburst against Obama during the president’s address was out of line, according to Gallup.

A greater-than-two-thirds majority of 68 percent disapproved of Wilson’s actions — with 23 percent expressing outrage at the South Carolina Republican calling Obama a liar after the president himself denounced as "false" accusations that his health-care plan would cover illegal immigrants.

Even a majority of Republicans — 52 percent — opposed Wilson’s outburst, while 39 percent of Republicans supported him, the Gallup survey found. Not surprisingly, an overwhelming 86 percent of Democrats disapproved of what Wilson did, while only three percent supported his actions. Among independents, a near-two-thirds majority of 64 percent disapproved, while 17 percent approved.

There was no demographic breakdown in the Gallup survey on Wilson’s conduct, but it did note that 45 percent of Democrats expressed deep outrage at Wilson, perhaps reflecting the views of many Democrats who see a racial element not only in Wilson’s actions, but in the venomous sentiment expressed by many of the president’s opponents — particularly the so-called "birthers" who steadfastly claim that Obama is a foreigner constitutionally ineligible to be president, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


The House resolution rebuking Wilson only added more fuel to the already bitter partisan divide in Congress.

Democrats insisted that "This is not about partisan politics or inappropriate comments," in the words of House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-South Carolina), who introduced it. "To the contrary, this is about the rules of this House and reprehensible conduct." While some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), would have preferred that the matter be laid to rest, Clyburn, declaring that "Silence gives consent," insisted, "We cannot be silent because we cannot consent to this conduct."

Republicans, while shying away from defending Wilson’s outburst, nonetheless insisted that the vote to rebuke him was a distraction. "Our economy is struggling, our families are hurting, and Congress is poised to demand an apology from a man who has already apologized," said Representative Mike Pence (R-Indiana), chairman of the Republican Conference. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the resolution a "partisan stunt."

Wilson did apologize to the president for calling him a liar, but he’s refused to bow to majority Democrats’ demands that he issue a public apology on the House floor to his colleagues for breaching the chamber’s decorum.

On Tuesday, Wilson again refused to apologize to his colleagues in the debate leading to the vote on the resolution. "I think it is clear there are far more important issues than what we are doing right now," he said. "It is time we move on."


House Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Black Caucus, felt compelled to act as the issue of racial bias against the president suddenly surged front and center in the past week, partly due to revelations that Wilson is a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — a 113-year-old "Southern heritage" group that, according to an anti-racism watchdog, has been taken over in the past decade by avowed white supremacists — and partly due to remarks made by former President Jimmy Carter.

The SCV, according to a 2006 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, had undergone a purge of its longtime moderate members — including several present and former U.S. senators — who were replaced by "racial extremists." That, in turn, led to a bitter severing of relations between the SCV and other Southern heritage groups, including the Military Order of Stars & Bars and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

The report noted that some 300 moderate SCV members were expelled, accused by the radical racialists of disloyalty for criticizing racism in the organization.

And in a 2008 expose, The St. Petersburg Times revealed that since the 1990s, clusters of SCV members "have aligned themselves with ‘heritage groups’ like the League of the South and the Council of Conservative Citizens" — both considered racist hate groups by the SPLC, with the CCC essentially a revival of the white citizens’ councils that sprung up in the 1950s and 1960s to resist the civil rights movement.

Carter, in an interview Tuesday with "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams and in remarks Wednesday during a town hall meeting in Atlanta, said that Wilson’s outburst was an act "based on racism" and rooted in fears of a black president.

“I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he is African-American," the former president said.

But one of Wilson’s sons disputed that.

"There is not a racist bone in my dad’s body," said Alan Wilson, an Iraq War veteran who is seeking the GOP nomination for state attorney general in South Carolina. "He doesn’t even laugh at distasteful jokes. I won’t comment on former President Carter, because I don’t know President Carter. But I know my dad, and it’s just not in him."

Republican National Chairman Michael Steele also denied race being a factor in the opposition to Obama’s domestic agenda, telling CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday that Carter was "dead wrong" and "out of line."

But when confronted by TV images during the president’s address showing Republican members of Congress almost exclusively white males and Democratic members of Congress a very diverse group in terms of race and gender, Steele admitted that the Republican Party needed to take a new line to connect with nonwhite voters. "Our party has for over a generation employed a strategy that right now many of us wish we never had," he said.


Even the White House disagreed with Carter’s assessment on Wednesday, with press secretary Robert Gibbs telling reporters that Obama "does not believe" that criticism of his policies is "based on the color of his skin."

Gibbs said the president understands that "people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we’ve made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by this administration and previous administration to stabilize our financial system, to ensure viability of our domestic auto industry.

"[But] the president does not believe that it’s based on the color of his skin," he continued.

Asked why this is not a "teachable moment" on race similar to the one that the president seized upon after the racially-charged arrest of Dr. Louis Gates, a prominent African-American scholar by police at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home, Gibbs replied, "Obviously, the president has, and has always had, great concerns about race relations in this country.

"He’s talked about them in speeches. He’s talked about them throughout his career in politics; he believes we’ve made great strides, and obviously we’ve got work to do. But I’m not sure I see this — this large national conversation going on right now."

The president has gone to great lengths to avoid making race an issue. But given the involvement of white supremacists in the "birther" movement to remove Obama from office; warnings of neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists girding for a campaign of domestic terrorism and the unprecedented spike in death threats against him — all of it exposed by The ‘Skeeter Bites Report and elsewhere over the past eight months — it is an issue that will not likely go away any time soon.

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Copyright 2009, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.

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I'm a native of New York City who's called the Green Mountain State of Vermont home since the summer of 1994.

A former print journalist and newspaper editor, I turned to blogging in 2005 to take advantage of the growing power and influence of the Internet and report news and information without the limitations imposed by editors and by economic constraints -- and to offer insights on current events that have often been ignored by the mainstream news media.

Politically, I acknowledge being an independent left-of-center moderate -- socially liberal and economically conservative -- who's not afraid to sharply criticize hard-liners of both the Left and the Right when necessary.

I'm also a radio DJ. I host northern New England's only Smooth Jazz radio show, "The Quiet Storm," which you can listen to LIVE online every Thursday at 12:00 noon EDT/9:00 a.m. PDT/16:00 GMT on WGDR-FM in Plainfield, Vermont.

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