The NBC/WSJ poll today tells me a few things. The first is that Barack Obama remains more popular than his policies. This can give either party some encouragement. It tells the GOP that they do not have a hopeless cause, exactly, (and warns the Dems about the risks of over-reach). But it also suggests to me that evicting a personally popular regular guy from the White House after one term will not be easy. Moreover, Obama's actual policies, while less popular than he, do command solid backing. On the biggest domestic issue, health insurance, a clear majority favors change - even if it means higher premiums. There's understandable anxiety about the effects, but greater anxiety about doing nothing. On the public option, there's a 70 percent majority saying it is an important or very important aspect of change. On the next big domestic issue, Obama's cap-and-trade proposal still wins a 48 - 43 plurality, even when explicitly linked to higher energy bills (although it's been slipping). On the biggest foreign policy question - Afghanistan - the most popular position (10,000 more troops and a civilian based surge in a geographically limited counter-insurgency) is also the one Obama seems to be leaning toward. But the public is persuadable on a range of options - including swift withdrawal of occupation forces, which commands a whopping 45 percent backing.

If I were a GOP strategist, I'd obviously urge an independent-focused message based on skepticism of government mixed with a real practical agenda for change. I'd focus on the Congress, not Obama. Alas, the base wants a Christianist-conservative appeal, demonization of Obama and abstract contempt for government, and the Congressional leadership is in the news. The public view of Congressional Republicans is grim.

On social issues, the emerging pattern is clear: Americans are increasingly troubled by abortion on demand (although a plurality clearly favors legal abortion), they are increasingly hostile to gun control, and they are increasingly supportive of gay equality. These trends appear to be real and holding over time. It makes me feel quite the centrist. For the GOP, the message is pretty clear: mellow a little (but not much) on abortion. stick to your, er, gins on the Second Amendment, and for goodness's sake, stop the gay-bashing.

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