A potentially volatile mix of high hopes for the new president and deep dissatisfaction with the country's condition greets Barack Obama's inauguration – a political fulcrum that could tip for or against him as he grapples with the country's economic crisis.
His starting position could hardly be better: While Obama's ratings for handling the transition are typically high, his personal popularity is extraordinarily so – better than any incoming president's in polling since Ronald Reagan. His political image, likewise, is more centrist than any president's in data back 30 years.
Support for change, moreover, is in the air, with seven in 10 Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll saying Obama has a mandate for "major new social and economic programs." Vastly fewer saw a mandate for George W. Bush eight years ago.
But that demand for change reflects the troubled times: Seventy-eight percent say the country's seriously off on the wrong track, down from its recent peak but still the highest level of national dissatisfaction to greet any incoming president in at least a generation.
Discontent with the economy is at a record high – 94 percent say it's in bad shape – and personal worries have soared, with 70 percent now concerned about their family's financial situation. Economic discontent is a powerful political force; the question ahead for Obama is whether it dissipates, bides its time – or turns on him.
Eighty percent approve of Obama's work to date, on par with – no better than – transition ratings for Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. (The current Bush did a bit less well.) It's a bipartisan rating, but no more so than it was for Obama's recent predecessors. And for them it didn't last, a reminder of the potential fragility of a president's initial popularity.
POSITIVES – At the same time, Obama's achieved a remarkably positive and centrist image. Seventy-nine percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of him personally, better than any incoming president in polls dating back to 1981.
Sixty-five percent also say Obama's neither too liberal nor too conservative but "about right" ideologically, a high in polls since 1979. And a remarkable 89 percent say he's "willing to listen to different points of view," his single best rating. Marks like these can provide cushioning in tough times.
Indeed, perhaps given the challenges he faces, expectations of Obama's performance are to some extent muted. Fifty-two percent have high expectations for his performance as president, but 34 percent instead describe their expectations as "moderate." That, too, may work to his advantage, given the hazard of unmet expectations.
The good will is not for Obama alone: his wife, similarly, holds the highest initial popularity rating, 72 percent, of any incoming first lady in data since Nancy Reagan – not a bad birthday gift. (Michelle Obama turned 45 Saturday.) And 63 percent express a favorable opinion of the incoming vice president, Joe Biden.
BUSH – Part of Obama's welcome likely reflects the public's relief at the departure of the heavily unpopular George W. Bush. In his final ABC/Post rating, 33 percent of Americans approve of the way Bush handled his job; that's up from his low of 23 percent in October – presidents tend to do better as they leave the fray – but still dismal. Sixty-six percent disapprove, most of them strongly.
Hammered by the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, gasoline prices and the economy, Bush never saw majority approval in his second term, a first for a postwar president, and never exceeded 36 percent approval in the last two years. Fifty-eight percent think he'll go down in history as a below-average president, the worst such rating, by far, in polls since Gerald Ford left office in 1977. Even among Republicans, just 36 percent say he'll be remembered as above average.
Bush's parting ratings are weak personally as well as professionally: Only 37 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of him overall, a popularity rating less than half of Obama's.
ECONOMY – But more than Bush relief is at play. Obama gets good marks for his initial work on the economy: Sixty-three percent say he's off to a "good start" dealing with it, vastly higher than Bill Clinton's 34 percent when he took office in 1993, also on a tide of economic dissatisfaction.
Even more striking, 72 percent think Obama's recovery program will improve the economy; just 49 percent said the same of Ronald Reagan late in the recession of 1981-82. And now, as then, nine in 10 of them think that improvement will take more than a year, suggesting Obama may have some time.
How much time is an open question. Reagan's approval rating dropped from an initial 68 percent a month after he took office to just 48 percent a year later, with recession in full swing. His rating for handling the economy dived from 59 percent approval in September 1981 to a grim 31 percent in December 1982. Economic patience has its limits.
Seventy percent approve of an economic stimulus package along the lines of what Obama has proposed. But there are lurking concerns, and the federal deficit looms large among them: Support for stimulus spending declines to 51 percent if it means a big increase in the federal budget deficit. (As it does.) Deficits are unpopular; Obama has a sales job.
Among the additional concerns, 54 percent are not confident the federal government will put in place adequate controls to avoid waste and fraud in its stimulus spending. (Previously even more, 69 percent, saw a lack of controls in TARP spending.) And 56 percent are skeptical the government will create a way average Americans can check on how the stimulus money's being spent – something else Obama has promised.
Obama already has gone against the flow of public preferences in one approach to the economy: Given concerns about TARP controls, and the view that it's an undeserved bailout for financial institutions, 58 percent oppose release of the second $350 billion in those funds. Obama lined up support for release of that TARP money this past week.
CONFIDENCE and PARTISANSHIP – Whatever challenges await, Obama clearly has the upper hand in Washington. Sixty-one percent of Americans express confidence in him to make "the right decisions for the country's future." That drops to 43 percent confidence in the Democrats in Congress – and just 29 percent in the Republicans there.
Still, there is partisanship in confidence in Obama, a potential sign of what's ahead. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats express confidence in him to make the right decisions; that slips to 61 percent of independents, then plummets to 27 percent of Republicans. Similarly, 70 percent of Republicans call him "too liberal."
Partisanship is in abeyance in some other measures; 62 percent of Republicans approve of how Obama has handled the transition, 54 percent see him favorably on a more personal level, and, notably, even among Republicans, 58 percent say Obama has a mandate for major change – meaning, chiefly, the economy. But partisanship still lurks in the wings, a potent force.
Indeed, and as noted, honeymoons rarely last. One dramatic example was in 1993: At the time of Clinton's inauguration, 72 percent of Republicans approved of his handling of his transition. A mere month later, after fumbling his administration's rollout, Clinton plummeted to 34 percent approval among Republicans.
Still, Obama may take advantage from the Republican Party's weakness after the Bush presidency. Just 52 percent of Republicans express confidence in their own party in Congress; Democratic self-confidence, by contrast, is 77 percent. And overall, 35 percent of adults identify themselves as Democrats, vs. 23 percent Republicans – among the lowest Republican allegiance in ABC/Post polls since 1981.
CUSHION – Obama, again, has the cushion of very strong personal ratings. Beyond his personal favorability, he's achieved a decline in partisan perceptions: The number of Americans who see him as "too liberal" has declined from 39 percent shortly before the election to 29 percent now. And as noted, in a related rating – his single best – 89 percent see him as "willing to listen to different points of view." No more than 49 percent (and as few as 36 percent) said that of Bush.
On other personal attributes anywhere from 67 to 76 percent also say Obama shares their values, can be trusted in a crisis, is a strong leader, is honest and trustworthy, understands their problems and will bring needed change to Washington. Sixty-two percent think he'll be a good commander-in-chief of the military – his lowest of these, but up 16 points since September.
PRIORITIES – As he sets to work, Obama's top task is no surprise: Seventy-six percent say the economy should receive the highest-level priority for the new president and the Congress, half again as many as pick any of the second-tier issues – terrorism and (perhaps ominously) the deficit.
Compared to a January 2006 poll, mentions of the economy as a top-priority issue are up by a huge 24 points – and of the deficit, up by 10.
Notably fewer pick Iraq as a highest-level priority, 41 percent, down 19 points since 2006, putting it on par with perennials such as health care (down 12 points as a first-tier issue compared with 2006) and education. Nearly as many, 37 percent, give a top-priority slot to Afghanistan, with other issues – taxes, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, immigration and global warming – lower on the list.
On Iraq, 55 percent say Obama's planned withdrawal schedule – 5,000 to 10,000 troops a month – sounds about right. But on Afghanistan, just 34 percent favor increasing the deployment of U.S. forces, as Obama intends – a sign that navigating the economy is just the start, not the end, of the challenges facing this new president.
METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 13-16, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,079 adults, including landline and cell-only respondents, with an oversample of African Americans (weighted to their correct share of the population) for a total of 204 black respondents. 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.