A Strong Start for Obama – But Hardly a Bipartisan One

Still, 56% think the country is in "a serious long-term decline."

ByABC News
December 15, 2008, 12:03 PM

Feb. 23, 2009— -- Barack Obama's month-old presidency is off to a strong start, marked by the largest lead over the opposition party in trust to handle the economy for a president in polls dating back nearly 20 years. But the post-partisanship he's championed looks as elusive as ever.

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Among the challenges, Obama's ratings, while high overall, are marked by the sharp political divisions he's struggled to overcome. Backing for his economic stimulus is more broad than deep, with somewhat muted expectations for its success. And concerns about the federal budget deficit are running high.

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Nonetheless Obama clearly holds the upper hand, both in overall approval and on the dominant issue of the day. He leads the Republicans in Congress by 61-26 percent in trust to handle the economy, the biggest such lead for a president in ABC News/Washington Post polls since late 1991. (Bill Clinton came close at the start of his first term.)

More broadly, 68 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance to date, not atypical for an incoming president (it precisely matches Ronald Reagan's first-month rating, and trails George H.W. Bush's) but a striking counterpoint to George W. Bush's departing 33 percent approval last month. Bush hadn't seen a 68 in five and a half years.

Partisanship, though, seems inescapable: Obama's approval rating, 90 percent among Democrats, dives to 37 percent among Republicans – a rating equally as partisan (in the other direction) as Bush's initial approval after the disputed election of 2000.

Support for Obama's stimulus plan, similarly, is 64 percent overall, but half that, 32 percent, among Republicans. Reasons include their sharply lower confidence that the plan will work, their sharply higher concern about the federal budget deficit – and broad concerns about adequate oversight of all that federal spending.

If Obama's hopes for a post-partisan presidency are falling short, he does get credit for trying – another area in which he far outpoints the opposition. Seventy-three percent of Americans say he's been trying to compromise with Republican leaders in Congress on important issues. Fewer than half as many, 34 percent, say the Republicans are trying to compromise with him.

In a related rating, 68 percent say Obama is "bringing needed change to Washington," the campaign promise he rode to Washington through the primaries and the general election alike. Again, though, Republicans are less than half as likely as Democrats to say so.

There's also been a dramatic advance – if still highly partisan – in views that the nation is headed in the right direction, up from 8 percent in October (a low in 35 years of polls) to 31 percent today. That change has occurred entirely among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, up from 4 percent "right direction" in October to 43 percent now. Among leaned Republicans it's been flat, 13 percent then, 15 percent now.

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DEFICIT – The deficit, on which Obama was holding a White House summit today, is a rare issue of broad agreement: Eighty-seven percent of Americans say they're concerned about it, including more than eight in 10 Democrats, Republicans and independents alike.

But the number who are "very concerned" about the deficit has risen by 10 points since mid-December, the increase occurring exclusively among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents - from 47 percent "very concerned" in December to 73 percent now. (And among people who strongly oppose the stimulus plan – chiefly Republicans – even more, 81 percent, are highly concerned about the deficit.)

The agenda for Obama's summit included Social Security and Medicare, two critical programs whose financial integrity is in broad doubt. Just 39 percent of Americans are confident Social Security will be able to pay them their full benefits throughout their retirement; about the same number, 37 percent, think they'll get adequate health coverage from Medicare. Far fewer are "very confident" of these – 11 and 8 percent, respectively.

PARTISANS and POLITICS – If tenacious partisanship is a disappointment to Obama, it may be a bigger bummer for the Republicans, whose party remains greatly weakened after the long-unpopular Bush presidency. Three results tell the story:

• The Democratic Party leads the Republicans by 56-30 percent in trust to handle the country's main problems. That has slightly improved from 56-23 percent in December, as congressional Republicans found a unified voice in opposition to the stimulus. But the December number was the Republicans' worst in ABC/Post polls since 1982; they still have far to climb.

• Fifty percent of Americans approve of the way the Democrats in Congress are doing their jobs, while 44 percent disapprove – if hardly a barn-burner, still the Democrats' best in two years, since April 2007, just after they regained control of Congress. And their Republican counterparts are a good deal weaker: 38 percent approve, 56 percent disapprove. (Democratic gains have come mainly in two groups: among Democrats themselves, and among liberals. Seventy-seven percent of Democrats now approve of their own party; just 55 percent of Republicans feel the same about theirs.)

• The Democrats are holding the edge in partisan affiliation they've built since 2004, when the public soured on the Iraq war and the Bush presidency in turn. Thirty-six percent in this poll identify themselves as Democrats, just 24 percent as Republicans. On average in 2003, by contrast, the parties were at parity, 31 percent apiece.

Ask independents how they lean and the split goes to 54-37 percent Democratic – a substantial advantage for Obama and his party even within the bounds of partisan preferences.

OBAMA/ECONOMY – Obama's approval rating for handling the economy, 60 percent, is a bit lower than his rating overall, but not bad given the economy's condition; indeed, 56 percent think the country's not in a normal downturn but something more threatening - "a serious long-term decline." That's a level of gloom unseen since 1992.

Obama's approval rating on the economy, moreover, is 36 points higher than Bush's departing rating on the same issue. But the partisan gap here is especially large: Eighty-three percent of Democrats approve of Obama's economic work. Twenty-four percent of Republicans agree.

In another area, 64 percent approve of Obama's handling of appointments to his Cabinet and other key government positions – despite some flubs, notably in his selections to lead the Health and Human Services and Commerce departments.

STIMULUS – While, as noted, 64 percent in this poll support the stimulus package, "strong" support is lower, 34 percent, and down 9 points from January. It's declined by 16 points among independents, 11 among Republicans.

The deficit is not the only concern. While 58 percent are confident the stimulus will make the recession less severe, just 13 percent are "very confident" of it. And 63 percent think more economic stimulus ultimately will be needed.

Also, while 62 percent think the stimulus will help their local economy, fewer, 46 percent, expect it to improve their own personal financial situation. Nonetheless, that's 15 points more than said so about Clinton's economic package in February 1993.

There's another red flag: Fewer than half of Americans, 46 percent, are confident the federal government will put in place adequate controls to oversee the stimulus spending; 52 percent think not. That's better than the views of Bush's controls on TARP spending – 69 percent saw those as inadequate. But it's hardly a ringing endorsement of the controls Obama's pledged to put in place.

There are areas beyond the stimulus spending for which Obama has support. Seventy-six percent favor stricter regulations of banks and financial institutions, and 64 percent favor Obama's $75 billion plan to provide mortgage refinance assistance.

But the Detroit automakers are another issue: Sixty-eight percent of Americans oppose providing them with the additional federal loans they've requested, even if needed to stave off bankruptcy – another of the relatively few issues on which substantial majorities of Democrats, independents and Republicans agree.

GROUPS – Beyond partisanship there are some notable differences across groups. Young people were a core support group for Obama in the election, and remain so; among adults under age 30 his overall approval rating peaks at a startling 84 percent, compared with 59 percent in his weakest age group, seniors.

Preference for Obama over the Republicans to handle to economy similarly peaks among young people, at 71 percent; among middle-aged Americans that drops to 49 percent.

There are income gaps here as well; among people with incomes less than $50,000, 66 percent approve of Obama's handling of the economy; among those in $100,000+ households, this drops to half. Two possible reasons: Better-off Americans are more apt to be Republicans. And they're in Obama's crosshairs on taxes.

METHODOLOGY – This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Feb. 19-22, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults including both landline and cell phone-only 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.