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Nation's Hopes High for Obama, Poll Shows

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By Michael D. Shear and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Even as they express deep concern about the current direction of the country, Americans are overwhelmingly optimistic about Barack Obama and are pinning their hopes for recovery from a massive economic collapse on the president-elect, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

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Nearly eight in 10 of those surveyed say the country is headed seriously off course. Seven in 10 worry about their family's finances, and 94 percent say the country's economy is in "not so good" or "poor" shape, the most negative assessment in more than 23 years of Post-ABC polling.

Obama will take office Tuesday as the most popular incoming president in a generation. He also will enter the White House with a broad mandate to act that was missing when George W. Bush was elected by the narrowest of margins in 2000.

More than half of all Americans have high hopes for his presidency, almost three-quarters of the public say Obama's proposals will improve the struggling economy, and about eight in 10 have a favorable view of him -- more than twice the percentage now holding positive views of Bush. About seven in 10 say Obama understands their problems, and a similar proportion say his victory gives him "a mandate to work for major new social and economic programs."

Eight years ago, fewer than half said Bush could claim a mandate after the Supreme Court declared an end to the election, ensuring his victory over Vice President Al Gore.

The optimism surrounding the country's 44th president contrasts sharply with the cynicism and doubt Americans continue to express about Congress and the outgoing administration.

Fewer than half of those surveyed have confidence that Democrats who control Congress will make the right decisions about the country's future. And just under three in 10 have that confidence in congressional Republicans.

As Bush leaves office, his popularity remains mired near historic lows, with 33 percent approving of the job he has done as president. Since the end of World War II, only Richard M. Nixon and Harry S. Truman have departed the White House with lower ratings.

The high expectations for Obama suggest that the public may be ready to give him wide latitude in crafting solutions to the banking, housing and credit crises. Seven in 10 say they support the outlines of his plan to spend more than $800 billion in federal funds to jump-start the economy. That support cuts across party lines, with majorities in both parties and even self-described conservatives saying they favor Obama's proposal.

The public still has qualms about some aspects of the federal response to the economic crisis. Nearly six in 10 oppose a second $350 billion infusion of funds to shore up flagging financial institutions, up from the initial opposition to the emergency measure in September. There is also widespread public opposition to last month's multibillion-dollar bailout of the auto industry. Nearly half call the federal budget deficit one of the highest priorities for Obama and the new Congress.

History demonstrates, however, how quickly bipartisan support can erode. In 1993, Bill Clinton entered office with 72 percent of Republicans approving of how he handled his transition, higher than Obama's support from across the aisle today. By May, after he had proposed to allow gay men and lesbians to serve in the military and pushed for a broad-based national health-care proposal, Clinton's approval rating among Republicans had plunged to 22 percent.

The public's favorable view of Obama after Jan. 20 will depend greatly on how he handles himself in office, and how well he confronts a broader set of challenges, including Iraq and Afghanistan.


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