Look closely at the two questions and you’ll see why the numbers have changed. ABC/WaPo told the people being polled that presidents have the power to bypass Congress and then asked them if they favored that approach. Not only was that “question” leading by reassuring people that O’s actions were proper before asking for an opinion, it offered no alternative to executive action. CNN’s poll was savvier, laying two options before the audience and emphasizing that bills passed by a divided Congress would necessarily involve bipartisanship and cooperation. Voters like compromise; put that on the menu for them and support for executive unilateralism disintegrates. Then again, that doesn’t mean the two polls are mutually exclusive. CNN wants to know which of two lawmaking styles the public prefers; ABC/WaPo wants to know whether the public would accept it if Obama chooses a different option than they would. Answer: Yes, because many people are pure partisan hacks on this subject. As long as it’s their guy who’s sidestepping Congress by issuing presidential orders to push their party’s agenda, they’ll tolerate it, even if they spent the years 2005 through 2008 screeching about the White House assuming royal powers. This trend will reverse — on both sides — once a Republican’s back in office, although the tea party’s attention to constitutional limits makes me think a GOP president will have less room to maneuver than O does.
The good news in the CNN result, I think, is that there’s room to grow popular opposition to executive power grabs. Even in the ABC/WaPo poll, support and opposition for Obama’s executive orders among independents was split evenly at 49. Maybe the GOP can move the needle by prosecuting the constitutional case against this publicly (e.g., Ted Cruz has an op-ed about it in today’s Journal), but I think the only way to get opinion to move sharply is for O to abuse his power in some public-angering way. That’s how it was with the NSA: It was Snowden’s revelations, not Ron Wyden’s and Ron Paul’s criticisms over the years, that made things happen. Obama will try to pick his spots on when to use, or not use, executive orders to avoid that scenario, but maybe he won’t be able to help himself. If immigration reform goes nowhere in the House, amnesty fans will demand that he issue an order that de facto legalizes illegals. He might feel, politically, that he has no choice — and the wider public might not appreciate it. Stay tuned.
By the way, although the rest of the CNN poll was positive about last night’s SOTU, that’s par for the course for these things. People always, always rate the president’s agenda higher the day after than they did the day before. The noteworthy number this time is that just 44 percent said they were “very positive” about what O had to say — an impressive figure in isolation but not when you realize that that’s the lowest post-SOTU number of Obama’s presidency and lower than any post-SOTU number of Bush’s presidency save for his 2007 speech, when he was at the nadir of his second term.