Nation's Hopes High for Obama, Poll Shows

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.

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.

As commander in chief, he will inherit responsibility for a war in Iraq that remains largely unpopular despite perceptions that the security situation has improved there. In the new poll, 61 percent say the war was not worth fighting, which about equals the average assessment of the war during Bush's second term. Terrorism in general ranks second on the public's priority list among the 11 issues tested in the poll.

About a third back his plan to send additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. More than six in 10 say the United States should keep the same number of troops in Afghanistan or pull some out; 34 percent say the number should be increased. His plan to withdraw one to two brigades a month from Iraq is more popular, with 55 percent saying that is the right pace for removing U.S. combat forces from that country.

But the economy remains clearly atop the roster of Americans' concerns, a dramatic shift from where the country was on the eve of the presidential inauguration four years ago, when the Iraq war topped the list of the most important issues.

The public confidence in Obama comes even as the president-elect repeatedly warns in speeches that an economic recovery is going to take time and that conditions are likely to get worse before they improve.

In a grim address last week, Obama warned that the nation could slip into the worst depression since the 1930s. Without a massive federal intervention, he cautioned, "our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse."

In an interview with Washington Post reporters and editors on Thursday, Obama said that he is being careful not to "overpromise" results.

"Part of the lifting the gloom is to be honest with the American people about the hole we're in and then project confidence that we will dig our way out of it as long as we act sensibly and responsibly," he said. "Your confidence is going to crash pretty quickly if it turns out that you were overoptimistic."

That formula seems to be finding an eager audience with the American people. Obama kicks off his presidency with high ratings on personal and professional attributes.

Seventy-nine percent have favorable views of the incoming president, nearly matching the highs President George H.W. Bush reached just after the Persian Gulf War, and more than double the favorable ratings for the current president.

The percentage of those with "strongly unfavorable" views of Obama has dipped into single digits, while half have "strongly favorable" impressions of him as he prepares to take the oath of office.

Nearly everyone, 89 percent, sees Obama as willing to listen to people with different points of view, a marker he laid down early in his transition planning as he patched together a Cabinet of former rivals and powerful White House counselors with divergent viewpoints.

More than three-quarters say Obama will bring needed change to Washington -- the hallmark of his historic candidacy -- and about as many see him as honest and trustworthy, empathetic and a "strong leader."

Large majorities also see the incoming president as someone who can be trusted in a crisis and as a good prospective commander in chief. The president-elect's ratings on the question of whether he will be an effective commander in chief are up significantly from before the election, though most Republicans continue to doubt his credentials on this score.

He is also now more highly rated on being in sync with respondents' "values" than he was last summer. About two-thirds now see Obama as "about right" ideologically, up from the campaign period, but also a challenge as he is forced to take sides in pitched political battles on Capitol Hill.

This poll was conducted by residential and cellular telephone from Jan. 13 to 16 among a random national sample of 1,079 adults. The results from the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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