Poll: Confidence in President Obama Drops, GOP Congress Gains Support

Poll shows clearest signs yet of GOP gains, Democratic risks in 2010 elections.

July 12, 2010, 4:27 PM

July 13, 2010 -- Increasingly disenchanted with President Obama's work on the stalled economy, registered voters by an 8-point margin say they'd prefer to see the Republicans take control of Congress – the clearest sign yet of GOP opportunities and Democratic risks in the 2010 midterm elections.

A year and a half into his presidency, 51 percent in a new ABC News/Washington Post poll would rather have the Republicans run Congress "to act as a check on Obama's policies," vs. 43 percent who want the Democrats in charge to help support those policies. That's accompanied by a 7-point, one-month drop in approval of Obama's handling of the economy, to a career low.

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While Democrats are most at risk, the danger's not theirs alone. Registered voters by 62-26 percent are inclined to look around for someone new for Congress rather than to re-elect their current representative – the broadest anti-incumbency on record in ABC/Post polls since 1989. Backing for incumbents has lost 11 points since February, an unusually steep decline.

There are other signs of raging discontent: ABC's Frustration Index remains well in the red zone, at 67 on its scale of 0 to 100, right where it's been all year. It's reached higher just twice, likewise in times of deep economic trouble – in fall 2008, 80; and in 1992, 73.

The index is based on anti-incumbency, ratings of the economy – 90 percent say it's in bad shape – dissatisfaction with the government overall and presidential approval. The latter's another tough one for Obama: His job approval rating has slipped to 50 percent, tying his career low in ABC/Post polls, with 47 percent disapproving. Those who "strongly" disapprove outnumber strong approvers by 7 points, the widest such margin to date.

Economic Indicators and the 2010 Elections

If the question has been when Obama owns the economy, it looks to be now – not at a happy time, given 9.5 percent unemployment. He'd made slight progress on this key issue, inching ahead from 45 percent approval on the economy in March to 50 percent in June. That's now gone, down 7 points in this poll to 43 percent, with 54 percent disapproving, a new high. And "strong" disapprovers outnumber strong approvers by a record 41 percent vs. 20 percent.

Saying the economy's getting better, moreover, may not help Obama and the Democrats, and indeed could hurt. Just 27 percent in this poll see it improving, not significantly different from 30 percent last month, and surely not on the way up. Claiming the economy was advancing when most Americans didn't see it was the precisely the pothole that swallowed George H.W. Bush in his unsuccessful re-election bid in 1992.

It's not all about Obama; even among people who approve of his job performance, 51 percent are inclined to look for someone new for Congress. But that rises to 72 percent of disapprovers. And by another gauge, anti-incumbency stands at 47 percent among Democrats who are registered to vote, but 71 percent among Republicans – and an ominous 70 percent among independents, quintessential swing voters.

Poll: Number of Independents Surpasses Both Democrats, Republicans

Independents are not only important, they're ascendant: Forty percent of Americans in this survey identify themselves as independents, among the most in 29 years of ABC/Post polls (and roughly this high steadily since spring 2009). The past year has been one of the few periods in which the number of independents has surpassed both Democratic (now 31 percent) and Republican (24 percent) self-identification.

Overall, registered voters overall divide almost exactly evenly in their party preference for House candidates – 47 percent for the Republican candidate in their congressional district, 46 percent for the Democrat. It's 49-45 percent among those most likely to vote.

Among independents, it's 47 percent for the Republican candidate, 40 percent for the Democrat – and among independents who say they're likely to vote, it's a wide 53-36 percent advantage for Republican candidates.

PUSHBACK – There is pushback for Obama and his party. Dissatisfaction with the federal government, while still high, has eased slightly. The Democrats actually retain an advantage in trust over the Republicans to handle the economy, 42-34 percent, although a record 17 percent volunteer that they don't trust either party to fix the problem. And a mere 26 percent express confidence in the Republicans in Congress to make the right decisions for the country's future, trailing the Democrats (32 percent) and Obama (43 percent, a new low) alike.

Lack of confidence in the Republicans, plus their stubbornly low allegiance numbers since the Bush presidency went bad, indicate that they're not benefiting from affirmative support for their own plans, but rather from dissatisfaction with Obama and the Democratic-led Congress.

That's a weaker hand to play, and it's one reason that high-level enthusiasm among intended Republican voters is essentially no better than it is among intended Democratic voters. Thirty percent of those who plan to vote for a Republican candidate say they're "very enthusiastic" about it, but so are 28 percent of those who plan to support a Democrat. Compare those to "very enthusiastic" support among Obama's voters in 2008 – 68 percent.

Poll: American Confidence in President Obama Drops

The mighty do fall: The number of Americans who are confident in Obama to make the right decisions for the country's future has dropped by 18 points in the first year and a half of his presidency, from 61 percent a few days before his inauguration to, as noted, 43 percent now. The number lacking such confidence has gained 20 points, to 57 percent.

Obama, moreover, has trouble in his own house, at least on the economy. The one-month drop in his approval rating for handling the economy came almost exclusively among Democrats, down 15 points from June to July, albeit to a comparatively high 63 percent.

His overall approval rating, as noted, is 50-47 percent; but "strong" approvers trail strong disapprovers by 28 percent to 35 percent. His approval still towers among Democrats, at 82 percent. But it's 47 percent among independents and a mere 15 percent among Republicans.

The president's solace may be his comparison to Ronald Reagan – the last president to take office in the midst of a recessionary gale. In an ABC/Post poll at about his year and a half mark, and with unemployment then at 9.8 percent, Reagan's approval rating was 49-47 percent –almost precisely the same as Obama's now.

It's nothing new: These two presidents' approval ratings have correlated at a remarkable .9 (1 is a perfect fit). The challenge for Obama is that Reagan continued to slide, bottoming out at 42 percent at the two-year mark. Remarkably, though, he lost only 26 House seats en route – about the average first-midterm loss, and a performance Obama may ardently hope to match.

Probably the greatest challenge for Obama and the Democrats is the extent to which they're boxed in by competing economic demands – for jobs, but against deficits, and with a sharp divide on the role of government vs. the private sector.

As big a concern as the economy is – and for many the economy above all means jobs – the public at the same time divides evenly, 48-48 percent, on whether the government should try to spend money to boost the economy in a way that creates jobs – or if this is best left to the private sector. Moreover, if spending on jobs means increasing the deficit, attitudes shift to majority opposition, 57-39 percent.

Still, another angle gets substantial support, even with concerns about the deficit – if not creating jobs, then providing extended benefits for those who've lost theirs. Sixty-two percent support another extension of unemployment benefits, even in a question that notes the view of critics that this would add too much to the deficit. Independents (59 percent) side with Democrats (80 percent), and even among Republicans a sizable number, 43 percent, agree. This issue may be one place for Obama and the Democrats to try for traction.

Poll: Voters Divide Along Partisan Lines on Health Care, Financial Regulation

Figuring out the Rubik's Cube that is economic policy is not the administration's sole challenge. Passage of health care reform has done nothing for Obama to date; just 45 percent approve of his handling of that issue. (More impact, positive or negative, may appear only as changes to the system actually occur.)

On regulation of the financial industry, with legislation pending in the Senate, similarly just 44 percent approve of Obama's work; on the deficit, 40 percent. These are highly partisan views, but with independents more on the nay than on the yea side.

The one item in which Obama does substantially better is a sleeper: Fifty-five percent of Americans approve of his handling of his duties as commander-in-chief of the military, a rating that's held steady since last fall. His decisive handling of the McChrystal affair may have helped shore this up; in any case, given the campaign comparisons to John McCain in this realm, the result represents an unexpected bit of balm for the president.

There's no relief, though, in the sharply partisan nature of today's politics, informed by stark divisions across policy issues. Registered voters divide evenly, for instance, on whether they're more likely or less likely to vote for a congressional candidate who supports health care reform – 39 percent to 37 percent (the rest say it'll make no difference).

They divide precisely the same on whether they're more or less apt to support a candidate who favors federal spending to stimulate the economy – 39-37 percent. And on the question of whether a candidate is associated with the Tea Party political movement, again there's an even division, with 30 percent more likely to support such a candidate, 30 percent less so.

The question, in the campaign ahead, is whether either side can seize the message that breaks these and other divisions open – and if so, in which direction.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone July 7-11, 2010, among a random national sample of 1,288 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.

ABC News polls can be found at ABCNEWS.com at http://abcnews.com/pollingunit

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