Obama Hits a New Low for Leadership, With Criticism on ISIS & Immigration Alike

Barack Obama's rating for strong leadership has dropped to a new low in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, hammered by criticism of his work on international crises and a stalled domestic agenda alike. With the midterm elections looming, Americans by a 10-point margin, 52-42 percent, see his presidency more as a failure than a success.

Just 38 percent now approve of Obama's handling of international affairs, down 8 percentage points since July to a career low; 56 percent disapprove, a majority for the first time. Fifty-two percent say he's been too cautious in dealing with Islamic insurgents in Iraq and Syria. And the public is ahead of Obama in support for a military response to that crisis, with 65 percent in favor of extending U.S. air strikes to Syria.

See PDF with full results and charts here.

With the president set to address the nation on the issue Wednesday, concern is at a peak. A vast 91 percent in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, see the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as a serious threat to U.S. vital interests. After its execution of two American journalists, support for air strikes against ISIS in Iraq has swelled from 45 percent in June to 71 percent now. Support for arming their Kurdish opponents is up by 13 points, to 58 percent, in just the past month.

At home, with Obama holding off his promised executive action on immigration reform, a new low of just 31 percent approve of his handling of immigration. Fifty-nine percent disapprove, up by a broad 18 points from spring 2013, when progress on the issue seemed imminent.

In general assessments, moreover, Americans by a 17-point margin say Obama has done more to divide than to unite the country, a rating worse than George W. Bush's early in his poorly rated second term - and one that's deteriorated among Obama's supporters as well as among his critics. Just 43 percent call Obama a strong leader, down 11 points in the past year to the fewest of his presidency. And his overall job approval rating, at 42 percent, is a point from its all-time low this spring.

NOVEMBER - The risks to Obama's party in the November elections are great - but they're mitigated, all the same, by the Republican Party's concurrent problems. While Americans by 55-38 percent say Obama has done more to divide than to unite the country, that expands to a 63-27 percent negative view of the Republicans in Congress on the same question. And just 21 percent approve of the way congressional Republicans are handling their jobs, a point from their low in polling dating back 20 years.

Vote preferences for November are closely matched; registered voters divide by 46-44 percent between the Democrat and the Republican in their congressional district. Among those who say they're certain to vote, that goes to a 47-44 percent Republican-Democratic race, underscoring the GOP's customary advantage in midterm turnout. As a rough guide, when the Democrats lack a double-digit lead among registered voters in the generic matchup, they're at some risk.

Indeed, independents side substantially more with GOP candidates - by 47-35 percent among registered voters. That puts all the more pressure on Democrats to boost their turnout, or suffer.

At the same time, even with Obama's problems, Democratic voters in this survey are a bit more energized than their Republican counterparts. Among those who intend to back the Democrat in their district, 71 percent say they're enthusiastic about doing so. Among those who favor the GOP candidate, fewer, 63 percent, are enthusiastic about it.

The extent of Obama's impact on the election remains to be seen, but - given his ratings - he's not helping his party. Registered voters are more likely to say they'll be casting their midterm ballot to show opposition to Obama than support for him, by 27 percent vs. 19 percent - not an overwhelming gap, but one similar to the result on Bush in 2006, a sweep year for the out-party. Further, Democrats win broad support from voters who see Obama as a strong leader and approve of his performance on a range of issues, international affairs and immigration among them. To the extent that these ratings continue to suffer, his party could feel the pain.

The economy and jobs prevail by a substantial margin as the issue of top concern in the election; while views of the economy are their least negative since the start of the Great Recession, 69 percent still say it's in bad shape, and just 42 percent approve of how Obama's handling it. It follows that 65 percent say the country is "seriously off on the wrong track," twice as many as say it's headed in the right direction. And even more, three-quarters, are dissatisfied with the way the federal government is working.

ISIS and LEADERSHIP - Obama is scheduled to speak to the nation this week on his emerging strategy to deal with ISIS, and, aides say, to build support for military action against the group. This poll, though, indicates that he's trailing rather than leading opinions on the issue.

As noted, substantial majorities now favor U.S. air strikes on ISIS in Iraq (71 percent, up by a remarkable 26 points since June, and 17 points just since mid-August) and extending those strikes to hit ISIS in Syria (65 percent), as well as arming the Kurdish forces that are among those opposing ISIS (58 percent). Moreover, while 52 percent say Obama has been "too cautious" in dealing with ISIS, just 8 percent say he's been too aggressive. That leaves only 35 percent who say he's handled it "about right."

These views extend to international affairs more broadly - 53 percent say Obama has been too cautious in handling them. (Fewer, but 43 percent, also say he's been too cautious in dealing with the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.) Further, the decline in Obama's approval rating on handling international affairs has included some of his core support groups - down by 20 points since July among young adults and by 16 points among nonwhites.

These criticisms - along with those on the immigration issue - likely are contributing to Obama's career-low rating for strong leadership (which also is notably down among young adults, by 13 points since January). His ratings on two other attributes, by contrast, while not strong, are essentially unchanged: even, 49-48 percent splits both on understanding "the problems of people like you" and being honest and trustworthy.

CONGRESS and INCUMBENTS - The Congress and its parties return from summer vacation to a Bronx cheer all their own. Just 15 percent approve of the way Congress is doing its job, very near its record low, 12 percent, about a year ago. The Democrats in Congress get a 33 percent approval rating, a dozen points ahead of the Republicans but hardly a bumper-sticker result.

Anti-incumbency remains near its all-time high: Just 23 percent of Americans are inclined to re-elect their representative in Congress; 67 percent are inclined to "look around for someone else." The record in polling back 25 years, just a point away on each side, was 22-68 percent in March.

Another result, though, shows some respite for incumbents. Americans divide by 45-41 percent on approval or disapproval of their own representative in Congress. While still a weak score by historical standards, that's a 10-point drop in disapproval from early August - and it's occurred chiefly among Democrats, a sign of life for the party. (Incumbents are hard to unseat in any event.)

Asked for a bit of punditry, 45 percent of Americans say they expect the Republicans to win the Senate - but almost as many, 40 percent, say otherwise. (Compare to 2012, when 55 percent expected Obama to win.) The public by a 7-point margin, 32-25 percent, also says that change in control would be a good thing - but a plurality says it'd make no difference.

PARTIES and ISSUES - Comparing the parties, there are close (or fairly close) divisions in which side Americans trust more to handle various issues, the Democrats or Republicans. That includes essentially an even split on handling "the main problems the nation faces"; a scant +5 on the economy (45-40 percent) and +4 on immigration (43-39 percent) for Republicans; and +6 on health care for Democrats (46-40 percent).

Notably, neither party gets majority endorsement on any of these. At the same time, there are better-than-usual results for the Republicans: Their result on handling immigration is its best vs. the Democrats in polling back to 2006. Their score on the economy ties its best since late 2002. And their competitiveness in handling the country's main problems, 40 vs. 39 percent, is unusual - the gap is its best for the GOP since 2003.

The Republicans also are +6 points in having "better ideas about the right size and role of the federal government." But that shifts to larger Democratic advantages in being "more concerned with the needs of people like you" (+12) and better understanding the economic problems people are having (+13).

The poll finds some explanation for why Obama backed off the immigration issue this past week; it shows a 46-50 percent division on providing legal status for undocumented immigrants now living and working in the United States - a shift from 51-43 percent support last fall. Moreover, Americans by 36-27 percent say they're more likely to oppose than to support a candidate for Congress who favors a path to legal status. (At the same time, though, the public by 52-44 percent would like to see Obama act unilaterally on immigration if Congress doesn't take action, suggesting a general weariness with the lack of progress on the issue.)

There are differences among Hispanics compared with others: Many more support legal status (82 percent, vs. 37 percent among whites). Eight in 10 also back executive action by Obama. And Hispanics, naturally, are far more apt to back like-minded candidates.

Other results also mark the striking disparity of attitudes among racial and ethnic groups. Obama's overall job approval rating, for example, is 87 percent among blacks, 57 percent among Hispanics - and just 31 percent among whites, a single point from his career low. Differences on whether Obama has united or divided the country are at least as sharp: Seventy-eight percent of blacks see Obama as a uniter rather than a divider; that declines to 53 percent of Hispanics and just 27 percent of whites.

Another issue, health care, shows the public's disconnect with both Obama and the Republicans alike. As has been the case more often than not, more Americans oppose than support Obamacare, now 52-43 percent. Still, more either support it, or oppose it but are willing to let it go ahead - 57 percent - than prefer to see it repealed, 40 percent.

Finally, despite their many complaints, Americans by 57-39 percent think the country's best days are still ahead of it. But as in so much else, there's a strong political and ideological component to that view: It ranges from 74 percent among liberal Democrats to a low of 43 percent among conservative Republicans.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Sept. 4-7, 2014, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,001 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 33-23-38 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.