Politics 2014: Low Confidence in Leaders and a Dead Heat in Midterm Preferences

Barack Obama starts his sixth year in office with the public divided about his overall leadership, dissatisfied with his economic stewardship and still steaming about his rollout of the health care law - all factors threatening not only the president but his party in the midterm elections ahead.

Obama is off the floor, advancing from a career-worst 42-55 percent job approval rating in November, as the HealthCare.gov website was crashing, to 46-50 percent now. Still, he's exceeded 50 percent approval in only two of 10 ABC News/Washington Post polls in the past year, and none since last May.

See PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

In another gauge, just 37 percent of Americans express confidence in Obama to make the right decisions for the country's future - a number that's almost audibly deflated from 61 percent when he took office five years ago. And the president's ratings are deeply polarized along political fault lines - partisan, ideological, racial and ethnic, generational and policy-based alike.

Obama's weakness leaves his party vulnerable: Registered voters divide essentially evenly, 46-45 percent, between Republican and Democratic candidates for Congress next fall. That's a challenge for the Democrats, because Republicans usually hold the edge in midterm turnout. And it's shifted from an 8-point Democratic lead in a pair of ABC/Post polls last year.

But the risk also could be to incumbents in general. This poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, finds anti-incumbency near the almost 25-year high it hit in October, with just 27 percent inclined to re-elect their representative in Congress. The Congress itself has a dismal 16 percent approval rating, steady at just 4 percentage points above the 40-year low in October. And while the Republican Party holds a crucial 7-point lead over the Democrats in trust to handle the economy, it also has problems of its own, on empathy, helping the middle class and related issues such as raising the minimum wage and extending unemployment benefits.

Moreover, displaying their pique, 71 percent of Americans say "the way Washington is working" will be a major factor in their vote for Congress this year - 6 points more than said so in 2010, and a sentiment expressed roughly equally across partisan and ideological lines.

But if government dysfunction garners bipartisan agreement, what to do about it is another issue. The public goes back to a close division on the prospect of a president bypassing Congress in order to advance his agenda via executive order, as Obama has pledged to do. Fifty-two percent like the idea, but 46 percent oppose it - and strongly held views on the issue are negative by a 10-point margin.

For all this, there is one slight break in the clouds: The number of Americans who say the country is headed "pretty seriously off on the wrong track" has eased to 62 percent, from 70 percent in November. Still, that's 14 points higher than it was in a short-lived burst of comparative optimism not long after the president took office in 2009.

THE PROBLEM - Chief among the president's problems is that simple fact that, with unemployment still troublingly high, many Americans are unimpressed by the pace of the economy's progress. A steady 55 percent disapprove of how Obama is handling the economy - still the central issue to most Americans, and one on which he hasn't received majority approval since his first year in office. His rating on the economy is more "strongly" negative than strongly positive by a broad 20-point margin.

The president does worse yet - 59 percent negative - on implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, just 19 percent rate him strongly positively on this issue, vs. 50 percent strongly negatively - a vast 31-point net negative for Obama in strong views on his handling of the ACA.

Strongly held views are an important indicator because they can signify motivation to vote. And while, as noted, the president's overall approval rating is about even, 46-50 percent, strong disapproval of his job performance exceeds strong approval by 18 points. With little for his backers to rally around, there's simply more mojo among his critics.

Other gauges back up his challenges. The president's 50-42 percent rating for handling the threat of terrorism has slipped under majority approval for the first time in his presidency. On overseas challenges, his ratings on handling Iran and Syria are more negative than positive by 10 and 12 points, respectively. And on the controversy over surveillance activities by the National Security Agency, well fewer than half, 41 percent, see the new limitations announced by Obama as "about right." Rather, in the can't-buy-a-break department, 28 percent say his new limits don't go far enough, and 18 percent say they go too far - net criticism from 46 percent.

More personally, too, Americans divide on whether Obama's a strong leader (48-51 percent) or honest and trustworthy (49-48 percent) - ratings on which he got dinged by the Obamacare meltdown and hasn't recovered. His personal favorability rating, likewise, is another essentially even split, 49-50 percent.

Another key rating reflects the sense of separation the presidential bubble can create: Just 47 percent now say Obama "understands the problems of people like you," tying his low, while 52 percent says he doesn't - a new high, albeit by a single point. A sense of empathy can provide cartilage for a president when the road gets rough - and was an essential edge for Obama in the 2012 election. Losing it is a problem for the president.

As noted in last month's ABC/Post poll, Obama's five-year average rating is lower than his two-term predecessors' in available data back to Harry S. Truman, although, to be fair, Obama's had a singularly bad economy. He's also experienced more political polarization than any president in available ABC/Post data back to Ronald Reagan.

Today, continuing that trend, there's a vast 68-point gap between Obama's job approval rating among Democrats vs. Republicans (matching his career average); a 57-point gap between blacks (91 percent approve) and whites (34 percent); and a 22-point gap between under-30s and seniors, among other groups.

COMPARISONS - A particularly troubling rating for Obama, as noted above, is the fact that just 37 percent of Americans express confidence that he'll make the right decisions for the country's future. But comparisons give him some respite: Just 27 percent express confidence in the Democrats in Congress to make the right decisions, and only 19 percent say the same about the Republicans in Congress.

One challenge for the Republicans is comparative weakness within their own ranks. Among Democrats, 56 percent are confident in their party to make the right decisions. Just 36 percent of Republicans, by contrast, express confidence in their own party.

Comparing views of the parties on key issues lays out a likely road map for the 2014 campaign. Among those results, 86 percent of Americans call the economy an important issue in their vote - far more, for example, than the 48 percent who say the same about immigration policy and the 40 percent who put a premium on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. And while the Democrats hold 9- and 12-point advantages on the less-salient issues of abortion and gay marriage, the Republicans lead by 7 points, 44-37 percent, on the key question of trust to handle the economy.

The Republican Party also edges the Democrats, by 6 points, 46-40 percent, on the very basic question of which camp has better ideas about "the right size and role of the federal government," and has a 10-point lead in trust to handle the federal deficit. The GOP also has an 11-point advantage on the issue of gun control, with Americans by 48-37 percent saying their own position on the issue is closer to the Republican Party's than to the Democrats'.

Those results point to potentially compelling (if familiar) themes for the GOP as it moves beyond last fall's unforced error on the government shutdown. But there's pushback for the Democrats - also not unfamiliar - on thematics and policy alike. The Democratic Party leads the Republicans by 11 points in trust to help the middle class, by 9 points in trust to handle health care (despite the Obamacare website debacle), and by 9 points both in empathy overall and in better understanding the economic problems Americans still face.

Marking two specific risk areas for the Republicans, Americans by a 14-point margin, 49-35 percent, say they're closer to the Democrats on the issue of raising the minimum wage. And 60 percent of the public supports a further extension of unemployment benefits. Both are issues that Obama and the Democrats are trying to turn to their advantage.

2014 GROUPS - In 2014 vote preferences, nonwhites, adults under age 40 and those with less-than $50,000 incomes are the Democrats' best groups, by 68-23, 52-40 and 51-38 percent, respectively. But turnout in those groups is uncertain, and among whites, Republican candidates lead by 55-35 percent. (Obama lost whites by a 20-point margin in 2012 and won the contest nonetheless - but whites' share of the electorate tends to be higher in midterm elections.)

Also, independents, potential swing voters, now back GOP candidates by a 12-point margin.

HEALTH CARE and IMMIGRATION - Obamacare, perhaps surprisingly, is another area that may carry risks for the GOP as well as for the Democrats. On one hand Americans divide on the law itself, 46 percent in support, 49 percent opposed, with strong opposition outstripping strong support by 13 points. On the other, though, a minority, 38 percent, say it should be repealed; 60 percent either support the law outright or oppose it but say it should go forward nonetheless.

Still, if calls for repeal don't resonate with a majority, there's still criticism aplenty on the health care law for Obama and by extension his party. Beyond his disapproval on the issue, six in 10 Americans still don't think the website's working properly, and 54 percent see that as a sign of broader problems in implementing the law.

Immigration policy is another issue with risks for both sides. Americans in this poll divide evenly on giving undocumented immigrants the right to live and work in the United States legally (support's been higher in polls that specify they may be required to pay a fine and meet other requirements). They also divide evenly on which party they trust to handle it. And if a candidate for Congress backs such a step, 30 percent say they'd be less likely to support him or her, vs. 24 percent more likely. (The rest say it's not a factor.)

Finally, there's the role of Obama himself in the midterms. In direct measurement it looks like nearly a wash: Twenty percent say they'll be voting to show support for the president, 24 percent to oppose him. Just before the 2006 midterms, by contrast, Americans by a broader 14-point margin said they'd vote to show opposition to George W. Bush, and the Democrats took control.

But if Obama's not a direct influence, he's an indirect one. And with his 46 percent approval rating, continued economic discontent and the public's deep frustration with Washington, the president starts the year ill-positioned to offer his party much help in the fall spectacular.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 20-23, 2014, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 32-25-37 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.