Analysis: Many Americans Approve President Obama's Economic Policies

Forty-two percent say the country is headed in the right direction.

December 15, 2008, 12:03 PM

March 31, 2009— -- Americans' views of the country's direction have improved sharply since President Barack Obama took office 70 days ago, fueled by better hopes for the economy and broad support -- albeit sharply partisan -- for his administration's recovery efforts.

There's far yet to go: Views of the economy's course and the country's overall direction are still more negative than positive. Ratings of the current economy remain dismal, with widespread blame and anger directed especially at corporate America. And Obama's approval rating is more divided by partisanship than any president's at this stage in office in available data back to 1953.

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But the gains in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll are impressive nonetheless -- and potentially a persuasive tool for Obama at this week's G20 economic summit in London:

- Forty-two percent of Americans now say the country's headed in the right direction, more than double its level (19 percent) just before Obama took office in January and up from a mere 8 percent in October, a record low since the question first was asked in 1973. Most, 57 percent, still say the country's headed off on the wrong track -- but that's down from 78 percent in January and a record 90 percent in October.

- A central reason: While 36 percent still say the economy's getting worse, that's fallen dramatically from 62 percent in January and a record 82 percent last October. And while just over a quarter, 27 percent, say the economy's improving, that's grown from only 6 percent in January and 2 percent last fall.

Positive reviews of Obama's work in office, particularly on the economy, inform these gains. Sixty-four percent express at least some confidence that his economic plan will help -- down from 72 percent in January but still a substantial level of support. Sixty percent approve of his handling of the economy, an accomplishment, given its dire condition. And his overall job approval rating, at 66 percent, is essentially steady from a month ago and the best in 20 years for a president at this stage in office.

OVER, NO; PARTISAN, YES -- But the public's economic distress is nowhere near over. Positive ratings of the national economy, buying climate and personal finances remain near their lows in 23 years of weekly polls by ABC News. And the improvements in attitudes are very highly partisan; Republicans, by and large, have not joined the party.

Partisan Ratings of Nation's Direction

From their low in October, for example, ratings of the nation's direction have gained 54 points among Democrats and 36 points among independents, but just 7 points among Republicans -- among whom 78 percent still say the country's off on the wrong track.

Economic optimism, while less sharply partisan, is up by 35 points among Democrats and 25 points among independents, but just by 10 points among Republicans. Fifty-two percent of Republicans still say the economy's worsening. (However, that's down from 80 percent last fall.)

Obama overall has a 95 percent approval rating from Democrats vs. 30 percent from Republicans -- a 65-point gap, compared with 58- and 57-point gaps for George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at about this point in their terms. That reflects the new age of partisanship that's prevailed since Clinton's days; the early partisan gaps for previous presidents were far smaller. As noted, Obama's overall approval is more partisan than any elected president's at this point in office in available data since 1953.

Two factors buttress Obama against this partisanship: His standing in the center, a 61 percent approval rating among independents; and the Democrats' continued advantage over the Republicans in partisan allegiance, a growing phenomenon since 2004.

UPPER HAND ... BUT WATCH THE DEFICIT -- Obama also retains the upper hand in Washington, a broad 58-25 percent advantage in trust over the Republicans in Congress to handle the economy. That's numerically the lowest preference for the out-party vs. the incumbent president in ABC/Post polls since 1991. (Notably, while 94 percent of Democrats trust Obama over the GOP to handle the economy, far fewer Republicans, 60 percent, trust their own party over the Democratic president on this issue.)

Moving the assessment a step away from the president personally, Americans divide evenly, 49-48 percent, in their approval of the overall federal response to the economic situation. But this, too, represents a sharp gain from December, in the waning days of the Bush administration; then the public disapproved of the federal effort by a 3-1 margin, 72-23 percent.

Still, as underscored both by partisanship and by that split decision on the federal effort in general, not all is peaches for Obama and his recovery work. A big objection: The deficit. They're never popular, and that holds true now. Americans divide by 49-47 percent on whether it's more important to spend on economic stimulus or to hold down the deficit. And Obama's approval rating on handling the deficit is just 52 percent, 14 points lower than his job approval overall.

The Deficit; Blame and Anger for the Economy

Views on the deficit, naturally, are a major factor in views on the recovery plan: People who are more concerned about the deficit are far less apt to back Obama's work on the economy, to be confident it'll succeed or to back the federal stimulus effort overall.

While the deficit is the Republicans' best pushback to Obama, the approach currently has limits: Americans by a substantial 30-point margin, 62-32 percent, reject the notion that he's an old-style tax-and-spend Democrat, instead classifying him as a new Democrat who'll be careful with the public's money. But the future's never certain: Bill Clinton scored similarly well on this question at the start of his presidency -- but then saw the tax-and-spend bear quickly bite. He went from a 26-point edge as a new-style Democrat in February 1993 to an even split by May.

BLAME and ANGER -- Part of Obama's advantage in dealing with the economy is that, while blame and anger are in great supply, he escapes both. Eight in 10 Americans blame the situation on banks and other financial institutions for taking on too much risk; as many blame large business corporations for poor management decisions. Seventy-two percent blame consumers for taking on too much debt; 70 percent blame the Bush administration for lack of needed regulation. Just 26 percent, though, blame the Obama administration. (High-level blame -- "a great deal" -- peaks for the first two, banks and other corporations.)

Anger runs along similar lines. Sixty-eight percent express anger at financial institutions and other corporations for their role in the economic meltdown; 60 percent at the Bush administration. That subsides to 41 percent who express anger at consumers for overextending themselves -- and to just 21 percent who project anger at Obama's administration for the economic situation.

There's ill will in other areas as well: Eighty-one percent express anger about the large bonuses being paid to employees of companies that have accepted government loans, and 74 percent say they're angry about the levels of compensation paid to top corporate executives more broadly.

Notably, much of the public's ire crosses partisan lines. Large corporations are assigned blame for the economy by eight in 10 Democrats, Republicans and independents alike; and resulting anger ranges from nearly two-thirds of Republicans (64 percent) to nearly three-quarters of Democrats (73 percent) -- sizable majorities across the board. And blame and anger directed toward banks and other financial institutions are similarly bipartisan.

Republican and Democratic Differences

BACK TO THE PARTY -- Overall, while the advances on the country's and economy's direction are impressive, so is the level of partisanship -- based at least some extent on Republicans' aversion to deficits and to government intervention in the marketplace.

There are a number of partisan splits as impressive as those noted above. Nearly all Democrats, 94 percent, express at least some confidence in Obama's recovery plan; that falls to 28 percent of Republicans. Seventy-one percent of Democrats approve of the federal government's response overall, up a remarkable 49 points since December; that falls to 23 percent of Republicans, essentially unchanged. And while 93 percent in his own party see Obama as a new-style Democrats, just 26 percent of Republicans agree.

Some such differences, as noted, are substantive ones. Sixty-seven percent of Democrats favor deficit spending to try to stimulate the economy; exactly as many Republicans oppose it. And on this basic question, independents, the fulcrum of national politics, divide right down the middle.

Better for Obama is that most independents are with him as he grapples with the economy. The challenge is that these less-partisan Americans are most apt to base their judgment not on politics, but on performance.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone March 26-29, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,000 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.

Click here for PDF with charts and questionnaire.