Electorate sharply divided over Obama

January 18, 2012

As President Obama prepares to give his third State of the Union address next week, he faces a dispirited and polarized electorate that is sharply divided over his record, worried about the pace of the economic recovery and deeply pessimistic about the country’s trajectory.

In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 9 percent of Americans see a strong economic recovery — a number that has hardly budged in more than two years. Twice as many say they are worse off financially since Obama became president than say their situations have improved.

Slightly more than half the respondents — 52 percent — say Obama has accomplished “not much” or “little or nothing” as president, while 47 percent offer a positive assessment of his record. Those findings are identical to public attitudes two years ago.

The president’s ratings on a series of domestic and economic issues paint a portrait of an incumbent facing a difficult reelection campaign. Yet Obama has begun to recover from career lows in several important areas, including job creation, which is expected to be at the center of the debate in the general-election contest.

Also, Democrats are starting to feel better about the country and the economy, and they are showing renewed confidence that the president will prevail in his bid for a second term.

Obama’s political advisers have long been preparing for a more competitive campaign this year than his race against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. That is borne out in a hypothetical matchup against Republican front-runner Mitt Romney. In that test, 47 percent support the former Massachusetts governor, and 46 percent back the president.

That nearly even split shows up repeatedly in the new poll. Obama’s job ratings are 48 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval. On questions of whether he is a strong leader, or empathetic or in sync with respondents on values, the country is closely divided.

An approval rating below 50 percent is hardly a strong starting point in an election year, but for a president whose approval had dipped as low as 42 percent last fall, returning to even is a clear improvement.

Obama spent much of the fall in a pitched battle with congressional Republicans over jobs and the economy, and he won a December face-off over a temporary extension of a payroll tax cut. In that time, his ratings improved somewhat on the issue of job creation, with 45 percent approving of his performance and 51 percent disapproving. Those are are among his best numbers on the issue in the past two years.

Public attitudes are even more stubbornly negative regarding his management of the economy in general, although there, too, assessments are better now than they were a few months ago. Much still depends on the trajectory of the economy. The unemployment rate has dipped to 8.5 percent, as four consecutive monthly declines brought an end to a more than two-year streak with the jobless rate consistently hovering around or above 9 percent.

Obama continues to receive more positive than negative reviews of his handling of international affairs in general, and most approve of his work dealing with the threat of terrorism, although here he has lost some ground from the big increase he received in the aftermath of the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden last year.

The president earns less solid ratings on the possibility of Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon. Republican presidential candidates have been extremely critical of Obama’s posture toward Iran. The Post-ABC News poll found that 48 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of this issue and 33 percent approve. Nineteen percent expressed no opinion.

Obama begins the year with a good boost from the Democratic base, whose enthusiasm is critical to his reelection prospects. Most Democrats, 53 percent, say the country is heading in the right direction, a 21-point increase since September. Two in three say they see a rejuvenated economy, up 19 points from November.

Politically, much of the past year has focused on sparring between the president and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, with the two sides fiercely opposed to each other on taxes, health care and other issues. Despite congressional Republicans receiving far lower approval ratings than Obama — in this poll, 21 percent give the GOP good marks — the two sides remain evenly matched in many respects.

Obama and the Republicans in Congress run neck and neck when it comes to whom the public trusts on the economy, taxes and the deficit. Most of those who see few accomplishments during Obama’s three years in office blame the president, not the Republicans in Congress, for the lack of progress.

Obama maintains an advantage over congressional Republicans on the issue of who is trusted to protect the middle class. But for the first time, he is tied with Republicans among independents on this question. But neither side should take comfort in that. A record-high 20 percent of independents say they trust neither side when it comes to the interests of the middle class.

Obama has a narrow edge over congressional Republicans on job creation overall, but that again turns into a near-tie among independents. Three times as many independents say they are in worse shape since Obama took office; that’s slightly more negative than it was for former president George H.W. Bush in January 1992, the year he sought reelection. (At 35 percent among independents, Obama’s approval rating on the economy tops Bush’s 24 percent.)

One key theme of the campaign is breaking in Obama’s favor. By 55 percent to 38 percent, more Americans consider inequality the bigger economic issue than over-regulation of free enterprise. A majority of independents say inequality is the bigger issue.

Nearly three-quarters of those focused on government overreach would support Romney in a matchup with Obama, while slightly more than six in 10 who say the economic system is tilted toward the wealthy would back the president.

Obama trails Romney among independent voters, but he is not without strong pushback. By a ratio of greater than 2 to 1, independents fault former president George W. Bush more than Obama for the current economic problems. Most — 56 percent — view Obama as someone who “sticks to his principles.” Even 44 percent of Republicans credit the president on this front, far above the 13 percent overall approval rating he receives from them.

The telephone poll was conducted Jan. 12 to 15 among 1,000 randomly selected adults. The results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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