Poll: Americans have high hopes for Obama

WASHINGTON -- Americans have soaring hopes for the incoming Obama administration and an even higher opinion of the Democrat they just elected president, a new USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows.

Nearly seven in 10 adults, or 68%, said they have a favorable opinion of President-elect Barack Obama. Almost that many — 65% — said they think the country will be better off four years from now.

"The reception he's getting is unlike anything we've seen in decades," says Andrew Kohut, director of the non-partisan Pew Research Center. "It's a very high set of expectations to live up to. On the upside, it means people are going to be pulling for him."

A lower level of optimism greeted President Bush and former president Bill Clinton when they were first elected. In both cases, slightly more than 50% said they thought the country would be better off in four years.

Obama visited Bush at the White House on Monday to begin the handoff that culminates Jan. 20, when Obama is inaugurated. The Republican president's popularity is about as low as Obama's is high: 68% said they disapprove of how Bush is handling his job.

Nearly two-thirds in the poll, 64%, said Obama's top priority as president should be improving the economy. Majorities said it is critical or very important that he sign new, stricter regulations on financial firms and help people facing foreclosure. Nearly half said the same about passing a tax cut for the middle class.

Expectations for Obama are high across the board. Eight in 10 said he will improve conditions for minorities and the poor, and 76% said he'll increase respect for the United States abroad.

About seven in 10 said he'll be able to improve education and the environment. More than 60% said he will reduce unemployment, bring U.S. troops home from Iraq, improve the health care system, create a strong economic recovery and keep the U.S. safe from terrorism.

More than half said he will be able to bring troops home from Afghanistan, reduce U.S. oil dependence, heal political divisions and control federal spending.

However, majorities also said Obama will not be able to substantially reduce the federal budget deficit, avoid raising taxes or control illegal immigration.

Beyond policy, the public expects Obama to pursue his oft-stated goal of bipartisanship. Eight in 10 predicted he "will make a sincere effort" to work with Republicans to solve problems. About six in 10 said Republicans in Congress will make a sincere effort to work with him.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has rebounded since delivering a widely praised speech conceding Obama's win. A few days before the election, 50% viewed him favorably. In the new poll, taken Friday through Sunday, McCain's favorable rating was 64% — his highest since early 2000 during his first White House bid.