June 22, 2009 -- President Obama remains on his honeymoon -- but with a hint of clouds over the beach.
They signal economic impatience. A still-impressive 65 percent of Americans in this new ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Obama's job performance. But there's been a retrenchment in the expectation that his stimulus plan will improve the economy -- and, consequently, a halt in what had been steadily improving views of the nation's direction.
A narrow majority, 52 percent, now thinks Obama's stimulus program has helped or will help the nation's economy -- down from 59 percent in late April. While he's vulnerable elsewhere as well, it's the economy that's his make-or-break issue -- and his advantage over the Republicans in trust to handle it, while still broad, has narrowed from a record 37 points, 61-24 percent, in April, to 24 points, 55-31 percent, today.
Where the economy leads broader public sentiment typically follows; given expectations for gains under Obama, the number of Americans saying the country's headed in the right direction had grown steadily from a record low 8 percent in October to 50 percent in April, its highest in six years. Now it's inched back under half, to 47 percent, with 50 percent saying we're on the wrong track -- the first time since Obama's election that views of the country's course have not improved.
The president's overall approval remains higher than his rating for handling any specific issue, and there are several on which he's notably vulnerable. He's below 50 percent approval for handling the federal deficit and the automaker bailout alike. His positions on Guantanamo Bay and torture continue to lack majority support. And he has a fairly tepid 53 percent approval on health care, a longtime political sand trap on which the administration is making a major push this summer.
In another sign of his risks, the number of Americans who approve "strongly" of Obama's job performance overall has slipped by 6 points, to 36 percent.
Approval for Obama, Bush, Clinton, Reagan
BUT STILL -- Yet, Obama is broadly popular despite these threats. While off its peak of 69 percent, his overall approval is slightly above the five-month average for elected postwar presidents, trailing three (George H.W. Bush, John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower) but clearly ahead of three others (George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan).
Still, five-month approval ratings of the remaining two, Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon, were about the same as Obama's today -- an indication, given the course of their presidencies, that early approval is hardly a predictor of long-term success.
Obama also retains vastly more popularity than other players in Washington. Just 36 percent of Americans now express a favorable opinion of the Republican Party -- the fewest in polls dating back to 1984, save for a one-time anti-GOP blip at the time of the Clinton impeachment. Just 22 percent of adults now identify themselves as Republicans; April's 21 percent was the lowest since 1983.
Obama, moreover, leads the Republicans in Congress by wide margins in trust to handle a variety of issues -- the economy, as noted, by 55-31 percent; but also health care, by 55-27 percent; the deficit, by 56-30 percent; and the threat of terrorism, by 55-34 percent.
His advantage on the deficit is notable, given the very broad concern about its size -- 87 percent of Americans are concerned about it, 56 percent "very" concerned -- as well as Obama's own weak rating for handling it, 48 percent approval. The Republicans may have opportunity here, but they have yet to capitalize on it.
This also is shown by Obama's ability thus far to evade the "tax-and-spend" label; 58 percent of Americans see him as a "new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public's money" rather than "an old-style, tax-and-spend Democrat" -- down a titch from 62 percent in March, but still a good majority. That shows far better sustain than Clinton, whose rating as a non-profligate Democrat dropped from 61 percent to 48 percent in his first four months.
Obama and Republicans Handling the Issues
Nonetheless, Obama's vulnerability on the economy remains -- exemplified by Reagan, the last president to take office in the teeth of a recession. His approval fell from a peak of 73 percent in March 1981 to 48 percent as the economy still struggled 11 months later. And today, public ratings of current economic conditions are just a few points from their record low in 23 years of weekly tracking by ABC News.
In ratings on handling the threat of terrorism, Obama similarly is staying out of trouble so far -- yet faces some significant risks. He leads the Republicans in trust to handle terrorism by 21 points, and holds a 57 percent approval rating on the issue, even with sharp divisions on some of his policies. Just half the public agrees with his ban on torture of terrorism suspects in all cases. Fewer, 45 percent, support his decision to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center by early next year -- and if it means transferring terrorism suspects for trial in the respondent's own state, support drops to 37 percent.
Nonetheless, relatively few, 22 percent, say the country has become less safe from terrorism under Obama; 32 percent say it's more safe, 44 percent the same -- unchanged since April.
DEMS and INDIES -- Boosted by the president, the Democratic Party has far more support than the opposition -- a 53 percent favorable rating, 17 points better than the GOP's. But that doesn't apply to one congressional Democrat in particular: Just 38 percent approve of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's job performance, matching the departing rating of Newt Gingrich in 1998. Pelosi has 62 percent approval from Democrats, plummeting to 33 percent among independents and 9 percent among Republicans.
Indeed, many of these views remain highly partisan. Obama, for his part, has 88 percent approval among Democrats and 65 percent among independents, but just 26 percent among Republicans. One likely reason is that the shrunken ranks of Republicans means those who remain are true believers.
While appeal to remaining Republicans looks highly unlikely, Obama's ability to hold the center -- the growing ranks of independents -- is crucial to his fortunes. And that may be the greatest challenge he faces; while independents give him a 65 percent approval rating overall, that declines to 54 percent on the economy and 50 percent on health care and the deficit, all marquee issues. Just half of independents, likewise, think the stimulus either has worked, or will work, to improve the economy.
Moreover, in terms of fundamental philosophy, 61 percent of independents prefer "smaller government with fewer services" to "larger government with more services" -- a basic view that puts independents much more in line with Republicans than Democrats. That makes maintaining their allegiance a particular challenge for any Democratic president -- even one on his political honeymoon.
METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone June 18-21, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results for the full sample have a 3.5-point error margin; click here for a detailed description of sampling error. Sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.