July 20, 2009— -- Rising doubts about the economic stimulus program, broad concern about the federal deficit and tepid support for President Obama's health care efforts are softening his popularity – and giving the still-struggling Republicans a glimmer of hope ahead.
While 56 percent of Americans still think Obama's approach will improve the economy, that's down sharply from a peak of 72 percent when he took office. With the deficit in mind, six in 10 oppose the additional stimulus spending the administration has suggested. And views of Obama as a "tax-and-spend Democrat" – the perception that dogged Bill Clinton in his early days – have gained 11 points since March.
More than Clinton, though, Obama is following the early course charted by Ronald Reagan, the last president to take office in the teeth of a recession. Reagan's job approval rating fell to 57 percent near his six-month mark; Obama's is nearly the same, 59 percent in this ABC News/Washington Post poll, down 10 points from his springtime peak.The bigger concern for Obama is what came next: Reagan weakened further as the economy struggled, bottoming out at 48 percent approval after his first year in office and 42 percent at the end of his second year, shortly after unemployment hit 10.8 percent, its highest since the 1940s. It's 9.5 percent now.
That history explains the urgency with which Obama's pushing a range of issues, notably health care; until the economy heads up, his popularity is likely to continue down.
One measure of what may lie ahead is a shift toward political neutrality: In this survey the number of Americans identifying themselves as independents, as opposed to either Democrats or Republicans, has tied its record high in ABC/Post polling since 1981.
ISSUES – Obama remains popular personally and far ahead of the Republicans in trust to handle specific issues, but it's his own ratings for handling those issues where his challenges show best. Barely over half, 52 percent, now approve of his work on the economy, down 8 points from its peak. Just under half, 49 percent, approve of his handling of health care, also down 8. And fewer, 43 percent, approve of his handling of the deficit, with 49 percent disapproving – only the second issue on which more have disapproved than approved of Obama's work. (The first was the automaker bailout.)
Intensity is running against the president on these issues as well. For the first time more people "strongly" disapprove of his work on the economy than strongly approve, 35 percent vs. 29 percent. Ditto on health care, 33 percent vs. 25 percent. And on the deficit, strong disapprovers now outnumber strong approvers by 2-1, 38 percent vs. 19 percent.
Another issue illustrates the president's better possibilities: Despite rising casualties, 62 percent approve of his handling of the situation in Afghanistan, a far less partisan rating than his others, and with intensity running for him rather than against.