Performance review: Readers rate President Obama

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U.S. Catholic readers provide a progress report on Barack Obama’s first term in office.

Since Day 1 of his presidency, Barack Obama has had a rocky relationship with Catholics. His invitation to be honored at Notre Dame’s 2009 commencement sparked widespread criticism of the university and a questioning of its Catholic identity. He received encouragement from the U.S. bishops for his efforts to provide universal health care only to see the proposed legislation nearly go down in flames at the urging of those same church leaders over the issue of federal funding of abortion. And more recently the bishops have accused the Obama administration of infringing upon religious liberty, even of being biased against Catholics.

Yet in spite of the vocal outcry in some Catholic circles against President Obama, poll numbers have told a different story. Exit polls in 2008 showed that 54 percent of Catholics voted for Obama—a 7 percent increase over those who voted for Democratic candidate John Kerry, a fellow Catholic, in 2004. In the early months of his presidency, Gallup polls consistently showed Obama carrying a higher approval rating among Catholics than in the general population, reaching as high as 67 percent in his first six months in office. Though Obama’s support has declined across the board, a 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed he still has the approval of 48 percent of Catholics, compared with 45 percent of the overall population.

Indeed, Barack Obama’s relationship with Catholics has been a tale of two presidencies. And among U.S. Catholic readers, opinions on the president’s first term in office vary just as widely. To some, like Jerome Leavy of Apopka, Florida, Obama has been nothing short of a positive role model for the nation.

“I appreciate President Obama’s intelligence, willingness to listen, and conviction that compromise can be made,” Leavy says. “He is a man of moral courage and faith.”

Others take a decidedly different view. “I believe Barack Obama will go down as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States,” says Annette Marsden of Parker, Colorado, adding that his policies have not only been damaging to Catholics but to the nation as a whole.

This dichotomy permeates the 687 responses to a U.S. Catholic reader survey on the successes and failures of the Obama presidency thus far. Readers see drastically different sides of the president, painting him as both a champion of the common good and an enemy of traditional values.

Like the general Catholic population, a majority of respondents—60 percent—voted for Obama in 2008. Three years later, 75 percent of those who supported him in the general election say they are pleased overall with his presidency. In contrast, only 8 percent of those who didn’t vote for Obama say that they’ve been happy with the job he’s done in office.

Many note, however, that their displeasure with the last three years does not rest solely on the shoulders of the president. “Never in my lifetime have I seen a time in which so many people have worked so hard to leash a sitting president,” says Gerry Czerak of Bolingbrook, Illinois. Flushing, New York resident Madeline Bauer goes a step further in pointing the finger of blame. “The Republicans have steadfastly worked against the president,” she says. “They want him to be a one-term president, and they will do all they can to make it so.”

Not all readers think Obama deserves a pardon for his failure to live up to the lofty promises he made on the campaign trail. Even with heavy opposition from Congress, some readers believe that a more experienced, strong-willed person could have overcome the adversity.

“I am disappointed—and more,” says MaryJo Matheny of Indianapolis, noting that she was a strong supporter of Obama during his campaign and had high hopes for his presidency. “Although he has had an impossible time with Congress, I do think that Obama could have made greater progress by surrounding himself with progressive advisors, realizing that compromise is both give and take, and not making secret deals with lobbyists.”

“He has not been a strong negotiator,” adds Don Rossman of Grapevine, Texas, echoing the feelings of a number of respondents. “He caves in and negotiates away his advantage too soon.”

When asked to look at Obama’s policies and actions through the lens of Catholic teaching, readers give the president more mixed reviews. On the positive side, readers point to Obama’s push for health care reform, which 56 percent say has been a solid contribution to the common good. Yet even those who supported the president’s efforts are not necessarily thrilled with the outcome.

“It’s a start, but it didn’t come close to getting us where we need to be,” says Joanne Boyer of Minneapolis. “He sold out to big money insurance companies who run for-profit health care companies.”

Nikki Crisfield, a U.S. citizen now residing in Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada, is also disappointed with how Obama’s efforts to provide universal health care have turned out. “His plan was so watered down that I am not sure how well it will serve the millions of Americans who have no health care,” she says. “I had hoped for more, and I don’t understand why Americans, as a society, don’t value health care as a basic human right.”

Many readers give the president high marks for his repeated emphasis on caring for the poor and those who are struggling, pointing to such efforts as his proposed jobs bill and the extension of unemployment benefits. Readers such as Robert L. Funaro of Ada, Michigan believe those policies are much more in line with Catholic teaching than the George W. Bush administration’s policies had been.

“[Obama’s] presidency does appear to reach out much more to the middle class, the poor, and the disenfranchised, and he challenges those who have much to share with those who do not have as much,” Funaro says.

Readers also have mixed feelings about Obama’s military strategy. There is a strong consensus that Obama made the right decision in his drawdown of troops in Iraq, which 87 percent of respondents say they support, and in Afghanistan, which gets 81 percent approval. But for some who had hoped the Obama administration would drastically reduce military spending and reverse many of the Bush-era defense policies, there is still a sense of disappointment. Laura Bistak of Lawrence, Kansas sums up what many expressed, saying she is “especially unhappy with the use of drone warfare.”

Among those who do not support the president, one issue remains the most often cited example of his moral failings: abortion. Forty-five percent of readers say that Obama has proven to be one of the most pro-choice presidents in history, and many list policies on abortion and contraception as the greatest failures of his presidency.

“He is by far the worst president when it comes to life issues,” says Catherine Slocum of Middleville, Michigan. Roselle, Illinois resident Thomas Imbordino agrees. “He does not place human life at the forefront of his opinions or his presidency,” Imbordino says.

Some readers, however, feel that this characterization is unfair, noting that overturning Roe v. Wade is a decision for the Supreme Court, not the president. “No one wants abortion, and no president has the power to stop abortions,” argues reader Claire Tenhundfeld of Cincinnati. “I think there are a lot of so-called ‘pro-life’ politicians who are just using that term as a political logo to win voters.”

Others take a broader view of the term “pro-life.” Renee Palmer of Montevallo, Alabama finds that Obama’s policies show more concern for human life at all stages, which she calls an improvement over his predecessor’s favorable stance on capital punishment and war. “George Bush was not pro-life, he was only anti-abortion. Obama at least seems to care about people and tries to help those in need,” Palmer says.

But after weighing all the pros and cons of Obama’s first term in office, one critical question remains: Will Catholics vote for him in 2012?

If U.S. Catholic readers are any indication, the answer is yes—but by a slim margin. Without knowing who his opponent will be, 51 percent of respondents say they plan to vote for Obama in the next election, while 11 percent remain undecided. Some express the feeling, however, that Obama may simply be the best choice in a weak field of candidates.

“I disagree with the Obama administration’s pro-choice policies and his bailout of the corporations,” says undecided voter Brandon Watkins of East Lansing, Michigan. “However, I also disagree with the Republicans’ clear efforts to give privileges to the rich and to multinational corporations.”

But readers like Mary McDonald of Arlington, Virginia still have faith that amidst the nation’s troubles, Obama is the right man for the job.

“We need someone who will put the needs of the country, especially the most vulnerable members of the population, before ideology and party politics,” McDonald says. “I cannot think of anyone who would fulfill this requirement better than Barack Obama.”

And the survey says...

1. In the 2008 presidential election, I:

Voted for Barack Obama and have overall been pleased with his presidency. 45%

Didn’t vote for Barack Obama and have overall been disappointed with his presidency. 34%

Voted for Barack Obama and have overall been disappointed with his presidency. 15%

Didn’t vote for Barack Obama and have overall been pleased with his presidency. 3%

Other 3%

2. When viewed as a whole, the actions and policies of the Obama administration:

In some ways conflict with Catholic values, but are more or less in agreement with the church’s teachings and can be supported in good conscience by faithful Catholics. 38%

 Have been both good and bad when viewed from a Catholic perspective, and it is up to individual Catholics to decide if they can support them. 28%

Couldn’t be more at odds with Catholic beliefs and thus no Catholic can in good conscience support them. 20%

May have some values in common with Catholic beliefs, but generally are in opposition to the church’s teachings, and therefore should not be supported by Catholics. 14%

3. President Obama’s policies have been more in line with Catholic moral and social teaching than those of the George W. Bush administration.

Agree 5%   

Disagree 39% 

Other 10%

4. Partisan politics in Washington have stifled President Obama’s attempts at working to promote the common good.

 Agree 55%

 Disagree 29% 

 Other 5%

5. If I had to choose only one, the recent president I hold most responsible for our nation’s current economic difficulties is:

George W. Bush. 53%

Barack Obama. 21%

Ronald Reagan. 11%

Bill Clinton. 5%

George H. W. Bush. 2%

Jimmy Carter. 2%

Other 6%

6. Catholic bishops have been harder on President Obama than they were on President George W. Bush.

Agree 55%

Disagree 33% 

Other 12%

7. I intend to vote for Barack Obama in the 2012 elections.

Yes 51%

No 38% 

Undecided 11%

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 2, pages 12-17).

Image: Tim Foley