A double punch of persistent economic discontent and growing skepticism on health care reform has knocked Barack Obama's key approval ratings to new lows, clouding his administration's prospects at least until the jobless rate eases.
Fifty percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of the president's work overall, down 6 points in the last month; nearly as many, 46 percent, now disapprove. On the economy, 52 percent disapprove, a majority for the first time. On the deficit, his worst score, 56 percent disapprove.
Such numbers aren't unexpected; Ronald Reagan, in similar economic straits, dropped to 52 percent overall approval at this point in his presidency. But it's not just the economy: Fifty-three percent also disapprove of Obama's work on health care, and the public by 51-44 percent now opposes the reform package in Congress – both more than half for the first time in ABC/Post polls.
There are further challenges. Obama's approval rating among independents, the crucial center of national politics, is 43 percent, a new low and down from a peak of 67 percent in the heady days a month after he took office. He's down by 9 points this month among moderates. He's got just 41 percent approval among whites, vs. 76 percent among nonwhites; and just 42 percent among seniors, a reliable voting group (looking to the 2010 midterms) and one particularly disenchanted with health care reform.
Intensity's also a problem for the president. Forty-four percent "strongly" disapprove of his performance on the deficit; just 16 percent strongly approve. On the economy it's 40 percent vs. 23 percent; on health care, 43 percent vs. 27 percent. On his job performance overall, 33 percent strongly disapprove, 31 percent strongly approve – not a meaningful difference given polling tolerances, but the first time his strong disapproval's numerically exceeded his strong approval.
One result on the economy (there will be more later this week) underscores what Obama's up against: Regardless of GDP growth and the assessments of many economists, 86 percent of Americans say that as far as their own experience goes, the recession is not over.
Obama gets a split decision, 47-48 percent, on handling unemployment; that could be worse with 10 percent of the workforce jobless. And there are better notes for the president: He's got 54 percent approval as commander-in-chief, a weakness in the election campaign but today his best issue of the seven tested in this poll. And his rating on handling the war in Afghanistan is swimming against the tide – up 7 points this month, to 52 percent approval, as most of his other marks fell.
More, 58 percent, approve of the troop surge Obama's ordered, and there's been an 8-point gain in the past month in the number of Americans who say they war's been worth fighting, to 52 percent. Views on Afghanistan haven't helped the president generally because more Republicans support him on that issue, but not on others. (His approval on Afghanistan has doubled among Republicans, to 44 percent.) Still, given his challenges on the domestic front, it's a subject on which Obama may have bought himself some needed time.
Obama still leads the Republicans in Congress to handle several top issues of the day, albeit in most cases by attenuated margins. Those include a 12-point advantage, 48-36 percent, in trust to handle the economy; 12 points on the war in Afghanistan; 10 points on energy policy; and a slight 7 points on health care.
The changes are telling. On one hand Obama has undermined the Republicans' competitiveness in trust to handle the war in Afghanistan; they've lost 6 points. But on health care it's a different story: His lead in trust to handle reform has dwindled from 28 points in June to 20 points in July and 13 points last month en route to today's single-digit edge.
Meanwhile Obama's advantage over the Republicans in trust to handle the economy, while stable since September, is down from 23 or 24 points this summer and a remarkable 37 points at his peak approval last spring.
There's another encouraging note for the opposition: Twenty-six percent of Americans in this survey identify themselves as Republicans, compared with just 20 or 21 percent in the three previous ABC/Post polls from September to November. It's the most since October 2008.
Support for the health care reform package never has been robust, ranging from 44 to 48 percent in ABC/Post polls since August, at low ebb now; and opposition's steadily been stronger in intensity. But the 7-point margin for opposition, 51-44 percent, is its most to date – indeed statistically significant for the first time – and the differential in intensity of sentiment has grown since September.
At root are skeptical views of the impact of reform on cost and care alike. Americans by 20-point margins think the changes that have been proposed would do more to raise their own costs, and the costs of the system overall, than simply leaving things as they are. By a closer margin, but still 13 points, more also think the quality of their care would be better in the current system than in one changed as proposed.
There are other concerns. Americans by 2-1, 45 percent to 22 percent, think reform would weaken rather than strengthen the popular Medicare system; seniors in particular think so, by 57 percent vs. 12 percent. And a steady two-thirds of Americans think the changes would increase the federal budget deficit. Some say that's worth it – but their numbers have thinned.
As in the past, some elements of reform are more popular, others less so. On the positive side in this poll is the idea of extending Medicare to cover people 55 and older who don't have other insurance; 63 percent are in favor, a sizable majority albeit down from 75 percent in 2006. The idea is least popular among seniors, with just 42 percent support. (Public opinion doesn't always carry the day, of course; expanded Medicare was set back this week by opposition from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb.)
There's a much sharper split on a public option for people who are uninsured vs. a program, as proposed in the Senate, in which the federal government would negotiate with private insurers for this coverage. Thirty-six percent prefer the former; 30 percent, the latter; and an additional 30 percent say the current system simply should be left as it is. No consensus there.
Views on reform are highly partisan; 78 percent of Republicans are opposed, 75 percent of Democrats in favor. Independents make the difference: just 35 percent now support the reform package, down 10 points from last month.
The differences in intensity also are telling: Among Republicans, 66 percent not only oppose reform, but do so "strongly." Fewer Democrats, 48 percent, strongly support it.
Results on Afghanistan show some of the powers of presidential persuasion, but also indicate some of its limits. Polls in advance of Obama's decision showed substantial opposition to sending more troops; in the event, as noted, 58 percent support it – led by 66 percent of Republicans, who are more apt to support the war; but also joined by 59 percent of Democrats, who are more inclined to support Obama.
The "war worth fighting" result, up 8 points, shows the same effect; so does an 8-point increase in the number of Americans who say the United States must win the war in Afghanistan in order to prevail against terrorism more broadly – 56 percent now say so. In polling from 2007 to early 2009, no more than 45 percent (and as few as 31 percent) said that about the war in Iraq.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 10-13, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin. Click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, PA.