Joel Benenson, President Obama’s pollster, has some bones to pick with the press.
Start with the issue of income inequality, which Mr. Obama has called “the defining challenge of our time.” But to Mr. Benenson, the press is making too much of this one theme.
“The attention on inequality is a bit overhyped,” said Benenson, speaking with reporters at a breakfast Wednesday hosted by the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.
Don’t get him wrong, he does think inequality is “a real issue in America.” As working people saw their wages and salaries stagnating, they saw people at the top making “enormous gains.” But he doesn’t think Americans resent people at the top who have done well – as long as the playing field is level. After all, many Americans aspire to reach the top themselves.
But when Americans “believe people are playing by a different set of rules than they are, when they believe they can amass their wealth by gaming the system,” he says, such as companies that park billions in profits overseas to avoid paying American taxes, “that’s what really ticks them off.”
So maybe the better term is “fairness”? Benenson does not disagree: “One of the dynamic things about the American economy is that it’s based on fairness.” It’s why people immigrate to this country, he says.
Benenson's next bone is over reporting on public opinion toward Obamacare.
“The polls that continue to ask, ‘Do you support or oppose Obamacare?’ are shallow and superficial,” he says. “If you don’t ask the followup question of people who say they’re unfavorable towards it or oppose it, you’re missing the point, because about a quarter of the people who say they are unfavorable or oppose it say it doesn’t go far enough.”
Benenson says there’s been a consistent majority who either support the new health-care law on its face or say they want it to go further.
“That’s not opposition,” he says. “People do not want to relitigate this. Do they think it’s perfect right now in every one of its phases? No, obviously not. But they believe that we can do with this what we did with Social Security and Medicare, which is make changes and fix it along the way.”
Benenson’s third source of frustration comes from the Texas governor’s race, where he has just become the pollster for Wendy Davis – Democrats’ newest political darling, as she runs an uphill race in a red state. Recent articles about her biography, asserting that she had misstated key elements, are unfair, Benenson says.
“The repetition of mistakes and sloppiness in the stories … is outrageous,” says Benenson, himself a former reporter for the New York Daily News.
“She never lost custody of her children,” he says. “That that got repeated all over the country is ridiculous.”
Ditto the stories about how she financed her Harvard Law School education, which Ms. Davis’s then-husband helped to fund. On Tuesday, Davis addressed the issue of her biography in a speech, but it’s not clear if any damage was done to her candidacy. Benenson says he just joined the campaign and hasn’t done a poll yet.
Benenson was equally vocal on other issues:
Immigration. “Any immigration bill that the Republicans advocate that stops short of a path to citizenship is going to damage them permanently with Hispanic voters,” he says.
Benenson rejects the idea that granting undocumented immigrants a form of legal status that allows them to work, but not full citizenship, with the right to vote, will satisfy most Latinos.
“I’ve done a fair amount of polling on this over the years,” he says. “I do not believe the American people are going to be satisfied with that, and I don’t believe that a majority of Latinos at the end of the day, when that gets hashed out, are going to be satisfied with that based on how I’ve looked on that issue and polled it.”
In the 2012 presidential election, Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote to GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s 27 percent. The Republicans must dramatically improve their performance among Latinos to retake the White House in 2016, political analysts say.
Economy. Benenson was asked why more Americans don’t see the economy as in recovery. His response: “They don’t want to take the risk of being overly optimistic at any moment in time until they feel we’re completely out of the woods.”
Keystone XL. This oil-sands pipeline project, slated to run from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico, is a lightning rod for environmentalists. A decision is expected from the Obama administration on whether to proceed in the next few months.
“Keystone is not an issue that captivates most Americans right now,” says Benenson.
He hasn’t polled on Keystone recently, but on energy policy in general, he says Americans support Obama’s “all of the above” strategy, from fossil fuels to greener sources.
“When he makes his decision on Keystone – whatever that decision is, and I’m not involved in that at all – I think the key is going to be, can he make the argument for why it’s the right thing to do at that moment in time,” Benenson says.
“That’s what will determine whether or not it’s greeted favorably or unfavorably by either people in his base or elsewhere,” Benenson says. “I’m not sure that he’ll factor that into his decision one bit.”