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.
Specific to health care, this poll finds majority support for the chief elements of the proposal put forward by House Democrats last week, with 54 percent in favor, 43 percent opposed. But strong support and strong opposition are equal, at about a third each. And that's without the pushback – concern about the impact on choice and quality of care – that long has been a counterweight to support for reform.
Obama has scheduled a prime-time news conference for Wednesday night, chiefly to address his health care efforts. A risk is that he may come to be seen as focused on other issues to the detriment of the economy.
GOP – The Republicans remain slow to capitalize on Obama's challenges, but there are glimmers – or at least, a few measures that are less bad for them than they've been. For one, approval of the way the Republicans in Congress are handling their job is up 6 points since spring and up 11 points from a year ago, albeit just to 36 percent, with 58 percent disapproving. (The Democrats remain better rated; 47 percent approve. And even today just 46 percent of Republicans approve of their own party's work in Congress; 79 percent of Democrats, by contrast, approve of their home team.)
Obama leads the GOP by 23 points in trust to handle the economy, 56-33 percent, essentially unchanged from last month; nonetheless that's the Republicans' best number on this question this year, and up 9 points from their low in April. Moreover, while Obama leads by 54-34 percent on health care, the Republican score is up 7 points from last month; and Obama's 54-35 percent lead on the deficit was 56-30 percent in June.
Basic partisanship fills out the picture. Thirty-three percent of Americans in this survey identify themselves as Democrats, slightly below the recent average and numerically the fewest in ABC/Post polls since September 2007. Just 22 percent identify themselves as Republicans, in line with their recent, extreme lows. Instead 41 percent now say they're political independents – tying the mark set in January 1996 as the most on record since ABC/Post polling began 28 years ago.
Most of the president's slippage is among Republicans; their approval of his work overall has dropped by 16 points since April, from 36 percent then to 20 percent now. (That honeymoon, such as it was, is over.) But he's also lost 9 points among independents since April (to 58 percent approval), while holding about steady among Democrats (93 percent then, 90 percent now).
Obama is well off the top-tier of popularity at six months. In polls since Harry Truman, five presidents have been better-rated at about this point (Truman in the 80s; Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and the first president Bush in the 70s.) Four have been similarly rated as Obama is now – Nixon, Carter, Reagan and George W. Bush; two lower, Ford and Clinton. Six-month marks clearly don't predict long-term outcomes.
ECONOMY – The economy remains the 800-pound gorilla of national politics. Seventy-seven percent of Americans are worried about the economy's direction in the next few years and 63 percent are worried about their own family's finances – each below its peak, but still broadly negative. Moreover very few, 8 percent, say they've become better off financially (Reagan's famous benchmark) under Obama's presidency; 27 percent say they're doing worse.
But on what to do about the economy, public, and the president, look to be in a bind. On one hand, as noted, confidence that Obama's efforts in fact will improve the economy has lost 16 points since he took office. On the other, Americans by 55-40 percent now say it's more important to avoid bigger deficits than to increase stimulus spending – with deficit priority up 11 points, stimulus priority down 11, since January.
Indeed the public by 61-35 percent opposes increased stimulus spending beyond the nearly $790 billion already committed – a dramatic turnaround from 70 percent support for the initial stimulus in January. And "strong" supporters then outnumbered strong opponents by more than 2-1; now it's strong opponents who predominate, 43 percent vs. 18 percent.
In another example of deficit fallout, barely over half, 52 percent, now see Obama as a "new-style Democrat who will be careful with the public's money," down from 62 percent in March. Forty-three percent instead see him as "an old-style, tax-and-spend Democrat," up from 32 percent; his 30-point advantage has shrunk to 9. (Clinton, similarly, went from a 26-point to a 5-point advantage on this question in roughly his first six months.)
It all matters: Among people who say they're worse off financially, 66 percent disapprove of Obama's job performance overall, while just 29 percent approve. And among those still confident his efforts will improve the economy, 92 percent approve of his work in office; among those who lack such confidence, 78 percent disapprove.
That's why, where confidence in his economic efforts goes, the president's overall approval is very likely to follow. (Reagan's not the only example – nor the most dire, since he had time to recover. The first President Bush saw his approval rating plummet by 36 points as result of the 1990-91 recession, costing him re-election.)
It's telling, too, that Obama's approval rating for handling the economy has declined not only by 12 points from its peak among Republicans and 11 points among independents, but also by 9 points from its peak among Democrats. And on the deficit, he's lost 12 points from his peak approval among Democrats, as well as 9 points among Republicans and independents.
Confidence that Obama's efforts will improve the economy, further, has not only lost 26 points among Republicans since January, but also 20 points among independents. Among Democrats that's down by a milder 7 points.
One better bit for Obama is that he still escapes main blame for the economy's condition in the first place – albeit a bit less so. Sixty-two percent assign the Bush administration a great deal or good amount of blame "for inadequate regulation of the financial industry," down 8 points from March. Separately, 32 percent assign blame to the Obama administration "for not doing enough to turn the economy around" – up by 6 points.
While the president doesn't currently come in for heavy criticism for his focus on top issues, 29 percent do say he's placing "too little" priority on the economy and more, 39 percent, say he's underfocused on the deficit. A quarter say he's spending too much time on health care, but nearly as many say too little.
ATTRIBUTES – For all the challenges on issues, personal appeal can provide the political cartilage that keeps a president popular – as both Reagan and Clinton demonstrated in their presidencies. That Obama retains in good measure – although, again, to a lessened degree.
Sixty-three percent say he "understands the problems of people like you," more than ever said so about George W. Bush, albeit down significantly from 73 percent in April. Sixty-two percent say Obama's brought needed change to Washington – steady from April, but down from the 76 percent who expected him to do so at the start of his term. And 71 percent see him as a strong leader, slightly off its peak, 77 percent, three months ago.
Some of these changes represent the inevitable return to Earth of a president who took office with such high expectations, particularly in comparison to his deeply unpopular predecessor. But others – chiefly, declining confidence in his approach to the economy – hold the portent of difficulties ahead.
METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone July 15-18, 2009, among a random national sample of 1,001adults, 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.