April 26, 2009 -- Barack Obama approaches the 100-day mark with rising economic hopes, the best job approval rating at this point in 20 years, the broadest personal popularity since Ronald Reagan and half of Americans now saying the country's headed in the right direction.
His problem: The other half don't.
For all he and his supporters have to celebrate, overcoming political divisions -- an Obama pledge -- is not among them. His 69 percent job approval rating in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll is almost exactly the average for an elected president at 100 days in polls back to Dwight Eisenhower. But it belies a more modern partisan gap: Ninety-three percent of Democrats approve. Only 36 percent of Republicans agree.
There's a similar split in the sense that the nation's heading in the right direction. It's soared from 19 percent just before Obama's inauguration to 50 percent today -- a stunning advance to its highest in six years. But while right-track ratings have gained 50 points since January among Democrats, they're up by a far milder 9 points among Republicans.
CAPITAL – Obama nonetheless is stuffing significant political capital into the bank, with economic hopes a key reason. Fifty-five percent of Americans now express optimism about the economy in the year ahead, a majority for the first time since late 2006. And views that the country is in a "serious long-term decline" rather than a normal downturn have eased from 56 percent two months ago to 46 percent now.
Fifty-eight percent approve of Obama's work on the economy, despite its still-parlous condition and very broad concern about his deficit spending. While just a third think his stimulus package has helped yet, another quarter think it will help in time to come. And the public sees no better out there: Obama leads the Republicans in Congress in trust to handle the economy by a garish 61-24 percent, the biggest such advantage for a president over the opposition party in polls since 1991.
All told, 54 percent say Obama's doing a better job than they expected, far above either Bush or Bill Clinton at the 100-day mark (39 and 35 percent, respectively). Sixty-three percent say Obama's accomplished a great deal or good amount in his first three months; just 37 percent said that about Clinton. And six in 10 say Obama's keeping most of his main campaign promises, again far surpassing Clinton (42 percent) at this point.
It's not just the economy; Obama gets particularly high grades for his work on international affairs, and he's well-rated on issues as disparate as terrorism, global warming and taxes (the recent anti-tax "tea parties" notwithstanding).
His personal appeal, moreover, is striking: Seventy-two percent see Obama favorably overall, the highest at 100 days since Reagan's 81 percent in 1981. A remarkable 90 percent say Obama is "willing to listen to different points of view"; fewer than half said that about George W. Bush. And 77 percent call Obama a strong leader, nearly matching Bush's best a few months after 9/11.
GOP in Decline, Terrorism and Torture
PARTY and IDEOLOGY – Obama also has the fortune to preside at a time of continuing disaffection with the Republican Party, now deep in the political wilderness. Allegiance to the GOP has been declining since 2004; today just 21 percent of Americans identify themselves as Republicans, the fewest since September 1983 in ABC/Post polls.
Similarly, just 21 percent say they're confident in the Republicans in Congress "to make the right decisions for the country's future," compared with 60 percent who express that confidence in Obama. And the Republicans have lost 8 points on this measure since January, while Obama has held steady. (Apart from Obama, 36 percent express confidence in the Democrats in Congress, down 7 points. A striking difference is that 64 percent of Democrats express confidence in their own party, while just 39 percent of Republicans are confident in theirs.)
While he's wildly popular in his own party, Obama owes much of his broader appeal to his centrist image. On an ideological scale 62 percent call him "about right," very near his 65 percent in January, the highest "about right" ideological rating in polls since 1979. (Thirty-three percent call him "too liberal," down from a pre-election peak of 40 percent.)
Among independents, the center of national politics, Obama has a 67 percent job approval rating; among moderates, 75 percent approve.
TORTURE – For all his positive ratings, Obama's surrounded by plenty of sand traps. One example: Republican pushback on interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, has shown some traction.
The number of Americans who endorse Obama's blanket ban on torture has declined from 58 percent in January to 49 percent now, down by 12 by points among Republicans, by 11 points among independents and by 16 points among conservatives. Previous polling has shown lessened opposition to aggressive interrogation if it actually prevents terrorist attacks, as Cheney argues.
Most Americans support Obama's release of previously secret Bush administration records on torture, but by a fairly tepid 53-44 percent, with strong supporters and strong opponents about evenly matched. And the public continues to divide, now by 51-47 percent, on the question of an investigation into the Bush administration's treatment of terrorism suspects, with vast partisan and ideological divisions.
Still, in sum on terrorism, more Americans think Obama's policies are making the country safer than less safe, by 32 percent to 21 percent, with the rest saying security's the same. And 62 percent approve of his handling of the U.S. campaign against terrorism overall -- a level Bush never achieved at any point in his second term.
MORE HAZARDS – There are plenty of other hazards for Obama, many having to do with federal spending. Just 51 percent approve of his handling of the federal budget deficit, with 43 percent disapproving. Nearly nine in 10 express concern about the deficit overall and nearly six in 10 are "very" concerned about it, unchanged since December.
Obama, GM, Chrysler and Iran
Obama's worst rating, 41 percent approval, with 53 percent disapproving, is on the situation involving the big U.S. automakers in Detroit. Majorities have opposed the government loans keeping GM and Chrysler afloat.
There's majority skepticism more generally about controls on the spending of the economic stimulus money: Fifty-three percent are not confident the federal government has put in place adequate controls to avoid waste and fraud in the use of these funds. Far more are "not at all" confident of that, 32 percent, than "very" confident, just 7 percent.
There's also broad awareness of the partisan divisions that remain in place: Just 37 percent say Obama has reduced the political partisanship in Washington, while 54 percent say he hasn't -- almost identical to Bush's rating on this issue at his 100-day mark. (Sixty-three percent, however, say Obama has "brought needed change to Washington" after the long-unpopular Bush presidency.)
While complaining about a lack of bipartisanship may be one avenue for the Republicans, their best seems to be to focus on spending and the deficit, together Obama's biggest potential vulnerabilities. Their challenge in doing so, however, is his dramatic advantage in trust to handle the economy -- again, the biggest in polls back 18 years.
INTERNATIONAL – While the economy has dominated public concerns, Obama's best showing is in the international sphere. One notable result is the public's endorsement of his willingness to meet with leaders of countries that have been hostile toward the United States; overall 71 percent support it (albeit fewer Republicans, 40 percent).
On individual measures, Obama gets 71 percent approval for handling the situation in Iraq (Bush went four straight years without majority approval on Iraq), 67 percent approval for handling international issues in general, 63 percent for his work on the situation in Afghanistan and 61 percent for his handling of relations with Cuba.
Fewer, 54 percent, approve of his work on the situation with Iran; 35 percent disapprove. Approval on Iran draws 75 percent of Democrats but just 27 percent of Republicans, with independents precisely between the two; similarly, 78 percent of liberals approve, but just 28 percent of conservatives agree.
BEHIND and AHEAD – We're just 100 days in; Obama's popularity across the miles ahead rests largely on whether hopes for the economy's future hold, and then turn into improvements in views of current conditions. His job approval rating among economic optimists is 84 percent; among pessimists it's a vast 33 points lower, 51 percent.
Obama's hopes of achieving some level of post-partisanship continue to look highly elusive, given substantive partisan differences across a range of issues. While these divisions are far greater now than 20 years ago or longer, Obama's solace is that his two immediate predecessors labored under the same burden. Bush at 100 days had approval from 94 percent of Republicans but just 39 percent of Democrats; Clinton, 82 percent of Democrats vs. 25 percent of Republicans -- both strikingly similar to Obama's gap today.
100 Days Presidential Approval
It's a positive sign for Obama that well over twice as many Americans approve "strongly" of his work overall, 42 percent, as strongly disapprove, 18 percent. So is the fact that his strong approval is 9 points higher than Bush's at 100 days, and 20 points higher than Clinton's at this point.
Previous elected presidents since Eisenhower have averaged 68 percent approval at 100 days, using ABC/Post polls since Reagan, and Gallup data previously -- almost exactly Obama's now. Notably, those were honeymoon ratings: Each is higher than those presidents' ultimate career averages (Clinton's just slightly so, and leaving aside Gerald Ford, who was not elected president but took office after Richard Nixon's resignation).
(Such comparisons are imperfect given different polling approaches; the Gallup polls from Eisenhower to Carter had many more "undecided" respondents than more current polls tend to measure.)
Obama's personal appeal also is important; his overall job approval rating is higher than nearly all his individual-issue ratings, suggesting that his popularity beyond the issues is lifting assessments of him overall.
Personal popularity also can provide cartilage for a president when times get tough. Among Obama's attributes in this poll, 74 percent call him honest and trustworthy, about as many say he can be "trusted in a crisis" and "understands the problems of people like you" and six in 10 say he shares their values. Fewer, but still 56 percent, see him as a good commander-in-chief, a prominent question during the election campaign.
A final cautionary note has to do with the vagaries of events and their influence on a president's fortunes. Views that the country is on the right track last were this high in the flush of apparent success in Iraq in late April 2003, a day before George W. Bush popped out of a fighter jet onto the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished." The political winds soon shifted dramatically; as the war and then the economy took their toll, his popularity never regained its level of that day.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone April 21-24, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,072 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents and an oversample of African-Americans (weighted to their correct share of the national population). Results for the full sample have a 3-point error margin; click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.