By Michael A. Fletcher and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 24, 2009
As President Obama prepares to address a joint session of Congress tonight, he is receiving strong reviews for his first full month in office, but deep partisan fault lines are quickly reemerging.
Large majorities of Americans in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll support his $787 billion economic stimulus package and the recently unveiled $75 billion plan to stem mortgage foreclosures. Nearly seven in 10 poll respondents said Obama is delivering on his pledge to bring needed change to Washington, and about eight in 10 said he is meeting or exceeding their expectations. At the same time, however, the bipartisan support he enjoyed as he prepared to take office has eroded substantially amid stiff Republican opposition to his major economic initiatives.
Thirty-seven percent of Republicans now approve of how he has done his job, a sharp drop from a month ago, when 62 percent gave him good marks for his handling of the transition. Also, nearly seven in 10 Americans oppose giving $14 billion in new loans to automakers General Motors and Chrysler, something Obama is considering in an effort to prop up the ailing industry and preserve jobs.
In his speech to Congress, Obama is expected to further outline his agenda for making health care more accessible and bolstering support for alternative energy, while explaining how he envisions his actions will lift the nation's economy. The president, who spent his first weeks in office championing the huge federal outlays called for in his stimulus package, is shifting the focus to his pledge to rein in federal spending, which he has called crucial to the nation's long-term prosperity.
Almost all the poll respondents considered the size of the federal budget deficit to be a problem, with nearly six in 10 "very concerned" about it. But even so, 63 percent said additional federal action will be needed to improve the economy.
Yesterday, Obama hosted a "fiscal responsibility summit," in which 130 invitees discussed the nation's precarious long-term budget situation, which is worsening because of the runaway costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. On Thursday, Obama is scheduled to release the outline of his first budget proposal, in which he is expected to summarize plans to cut the soaring deficit in half by the end of his first term in office.
Any effort to deal with the federal entitlement programs will no doubt be influenced by public pessimism over the their long-term viability. Few Americans are convinced that the Social Security and Medicare systems are in shape to provide benefits throughout their retirements, according to the poll. Just 11 percent of those polled said they are sure Social Security will be able to pay their full benefits. Regarding Medicare, 8 percent are very confident the system will provide adequate health-care coverage.
Seniors covered by these bedrock federal programs are generally confident that both will be able to meet their needs, but those not yet old enough to be eligible are far less sanguine about their prospects. Among those 65 or older, 78 percent are very or somewhat confident that Social Security will last throughout their retirements, and 67 percent share that view about Medicare. The numbers dive to 31 percent for both programs among those ages 18 to 64, and the number who are "very confident" is less than 10 percent.
Overall, 68 percent of poll respondents approve of Obama's job performance, a finding that puts him on par with the average for the past eight presidents at this point in their tenures. Ninety percent of Democrats and 67 percent of independents approve of Obama's performance. Sixty-four percent said they approve of how Obama is handling appointments to the Cabinet and other top positions in the administration, despite tax problems and stumbles that have led to three of his top nominees withdrawing from consideration.
Although Obama has encountered near-unanimous GOP opposition to his stimulus plan in Congress and widespread criticism for a housing bailout plan that some say rewards people who have been fiscally irresponsible, 64 percent of those polled back the economic recovery package, and the same percentage support the mortgage proposal. The broad support for the recovery package comes as just 10 percent said the bill was too heavy on spending and too light on tax cuts, the primary contention of the Republican leadership in Congress.
Overall, 60 percent of poll respondents approve of how Obama is dealing with the economy.
About nine in 10 Democrats and seven in 10 independents said Obama is living up to the central promise of his campaign: bringing change to Washington. Most Republicans said he is not.
Half of all poll respondents said they approve of how congressional Democrats are doing their jobs, up 15 points from July and the highest marks they have received in nearly two years. Congressional Republicans also are being viewed more favorably, with 38 percent approving of their job performance, a 13-point improvement since the middle of last year.
Head to head, though, Americans put far more faith in Obama than in congressional Republicans: Sixty-one percent said they trust Obama more than the GOP on economic matters; 26 percent side with the Republicans in Congress. On that question, Obama's advantage is bigger than George W. Bush, Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush ever had over the opposition party in the legislature.
Overall, Democrats maintain an edge of nearly 2 to 1 over Republicans as the party that Americans prefer to confront "the big issues" over the next few years.
Although most poll respondents approve of the job Obama is doing, two-thirds still see the nation as being seriously on the wrong track. But that outlook is less dire than it was a month ago, as Democrats have become more hopeful about the country's direction now that they have recaptured the White House.
Two out of three poll respondents said they want Democrats and Republicans to cooperate across party lines, even if that means compromising on important issues. And most, nearly three in four, said Obama is trying to reach across the partisan divide; nearly six in 10 respondents said Republicans are not returning the gesture.
That divide was apparent in the partisan battle over Obama's stimulus plan, which ended up winning three Republican votes in the Senate and none in the House. Although most of those polled support the stimulus package, the intensity of the opposition has crept upward since the plan's passage last week. About a quarter now "strongly oppose" it, with GOP antipathy solidifying over the past month.
Republicans also represent the vanguard of the opposition to Obama's plan to pump $75 billion into helping homeowners avoid foreclosure, as well as to Detroit's effort to get an additional $14 billion in federal loan guarantees. But on resistance to new loans to the automakers, Republicans (79 percent of whom oppose the new monies) are not alone; 61 percent of Democrats and 68 percent of independents are also opposed.
Many of those polled, 56 percent, said the economy is in a rather serious long-term decline; far fewer, 42 percent, see the downturn as "normal" movement. Some of that assessment, however, is partisan: Although independents are about as apt as they were in late September to see a steeper, more permanent decline, Democrats are now more likely to assess the situation as typical, and Republicans much less so.
The poll was conducted Feb. 19 to 22 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults interviewed on either a conventional or cellular telephone. Results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; error margins are higher for subgroups.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.