Barack Obama's month-old presidency is off to a strong start, marked by the largest lead over the opposition party in trust to handle the economy for a president in polls dating back nearly 20 years. But the post-partisanship he's championed looks as elusive as ever.
Among the challenges, Obama's ratings, while high overall, are marked by the sharp political divisions he's struggled to overcome. Backing for his economic stimulus is more broad than deep, with somewhat muted expectations for its success. And concerns about the federal budget deficit are running high.
Nonetheless Obama clearly holds the upper hand, both in overall approval and on the dominant issue of the day. He leads the Republicans in Congress by 61-26 percent in trust to handle the economy, the biggest such lead for a president in ABC News/Washington Post polls since late 1991. (Bill Clinton came close at the start of his first term.)
More broadly, 68 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance to date, not atypical for an incoming president (it precisely matches Ronald Reagan's first-month rating, and trails George H.W. Bush's) but a striking counterpoint to George W. Bush's departing 33 percent approval last month. Bush hadn't seen a 68 in five and a half years.
Partisanship, though, seems inescapable: Obama's approval rating, 90 percent among Democrats, dives to 37 percent among Republicans – a rating equally as partisan (in the other direction) as Bush's initial approval after the disputed election of 2000.
Support for Obama's stimulus plan, similarly, is 64 percent overall, but half that, 32 percent, among Republicans. Reasons include their sharply lower confidence that the plan will work, their sharply higher concern about the federal budget deficit – and broad concerns about adequate oversight of all that federal spending.
If Obama's hopes for a post-partisan presidency are falling short, he does get credit for trying – another area in which he far outpoints the opposition. Seventy-three percent of Americans say he's been trying to compromise with Republican leaders in Congress on important issues. Fewer than half as many, 34 percent, say the Republicans are trying to compromise with him.
In a related rating, 68 percent say Obama is "bringing needed change to Washington," the campaign promise he rode to Washington through the primaries and the general election alike. Again, though, Republicans are less than half as likely as Democrats to say so.
There's also been a dramatic advance – if still highly partisan – in views that the nation is headed in the right direction, up from 8 percent in October (a low in 35 years of polls) to 31 percent today. That change has occurred entirely among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, up from 4 percent "right direction" in October to 43 percent now. Among leaned Republicans it's been flat, 13 percent then, 15 percent now.
Obama addresses a joint session of Congress tomorrow night.