BUSH – Part of Obama's welcome likely reflects the public's relief at the departure of the heavily unpopular George W. Bush. In his final ABC/Post rating, 33 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush handled his job; that's up from his low of 23 percent in October – presidents tend to do better as they leave the fray – but still dismal. Sixty-six percent disapprove, most of them strongly.
Hammered by the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices and the economy, Bush never saw majority approval in his second term, a first for a postwar president, and never exceeded 36 percent approval in the last two years. Fifty-eight percent think he'll go down in history as a below-average president, the worst such rating, by far, in polls since Gerald Ford left office in 1977. Even among Republicans, just 36 percent say he'll be remembered as above average.
Bush's parting ratings are weak personally as well as professionally: Only 37 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of him overall, a popularity rating less than half of Obama's.
ECONOMY – But more than Bush relief is at play. Obama gets good marks for his initial work on the economy: Sixty-three percent say he's off to a "good start" dealing with it, vastly higher than Bill Clinton's 34 percent when he took office in 1993, also on a tide of economic dissatisfaction.
Even more striking, 72 percent think Obama's recovery program will improve the economy; just 49 percent said the same of Ronald Reagan late in the recession of 1981-82. And now, as then, nine in 10 of them think that improvement will take more than a year, suggesting Obama may have some time.
How much time is an open question. Reagan's approval rating dropped from an initial 68 percent a month after he took office to just 48 percent a year later, with recession in full swing. His rating for handling the economy dived from 59 percent approval in September 1981 to a grim 31 percent in December 1982. Economic patience has its limits.
Seventy percent approve of an economic stimulus package along the lines of what Obama has proposed. But there are lurking concerns, and the federal deficit looms large among them: Support for stimulus spending declines to 51 percent if it means a big increase in the federal budget deficit. (As it does.) Deficits are unpopular; Obama has a sales job.
Among the additional concerns, 54 percent are not confident the federal government will put in place adequate controls to avoid waste and fraud in its stimulus spending. (Previously even more, 69 percent, saw a lack of controls in TARP spending.) And 56 percent are skeptical the government will create a way average Americans can check on how the stimulus money's being spent – something else Obama has promised.
Obama already has gone against the flow of public preferences in one approach to the economy: Given concerns about TARP controls, and the view that it's an undeserved bailout for financial institutions, 58 percent oppose release of the second $350 billion in those funds. Obama lined up support for release of that TARP money this past week.
CONFIDENCE and PARTISANSHIP – Whatever challenges await, Obama clearly has the upper hand in Washington. Sixty-one percent of Americans express confidence in him to make "the right decisions for the country's future." That drops to 43 percent confidence in the Democrats in Congress – and just 29 percent in the Republicans there.