By Jon Cohen and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The number of Americans who believe that the nation is headed in the right direction has roughly tripled since Barack Obama's election, and the public overwhelmingly blames the excesses of the financial industry, rather than the new president, for turmoil in the economy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
At this early stage in his presidency, Obama continues to benefit from a broadly held perception that others should bear the bulk of responsibility for the severe economic problems that confront his administration. Americans see plenty of offenders, but only about a quarter blame the president and his team for an economy that's in the ditch.
Despite the increasing optimism about the future, the nation's overall mood remains gloomy, and doubts are rising about some of the administration's prescriptions for the economic woes. Independents are less solidly behind Obama than they have been, fewer Americans now express confidence that his economic programs will work, barely half of the country approves of how the president is dealing with the federal budget deficit, and the political climate is once again highly polarized.
The percentage of Americans in the new poll who said the country is on the right track still stands at just 42 percent, but that is the highest percentage saying so in five years and marks a sharp turnabout from last fall, when as many as nine in 10 said the country was heading in the wrong direction. Fifty-seven percent now consider the nation as moving on the wrong track.
Overall perceptions about the country parallel a rapid increase in the percentage of Americans who say the economy is improving. For the first time since late 2004, the gap between the numbers saying the economy is getting better and those saying it's getting worse is in the single digits (27 percent to 36 percent).
Two-thirds of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling the country's top job, and six in 10 give him good marks on issue No. 1, the flagging economy. Those figures are little changed from last month. But he receives lower marks for dealing with the federal budget deficit after submitting a plan that would see continued huge deficits over the next decade. Fifty-two percent back Obama on his approach to the deficit, with the public split about evenly over whether belt-tightening or big increases in spending should be used to try to improve the economy.
There is now a pronounced divergence between Democratic and Republican perceptions of the economy, a bigger partisan divide than the one that occurred 16 years ago after Bill Clinton took office. In early 1993, people in both parties were about equally likely to see the economy as improving, but now the number of Republicans who say it is souring is more than double that of Democrats.
A sharp rise in optimism has occurred among Democrats, who are about three times as likely to approve of the country's course as they were just before Obama's inauguration. Independents, too, are more optimistic, with twice as many feeling positive as in mid-January. Among Republicans, there has not been significant movement in either direction.
Obama's overall approval rating among independents has dipped six points, to 61 percent, and fewer than half, 45 percent, said he is doing a good job of handling the deficit. His approval rating among Republicans has dropped seven points, to 30 percent.
Overall, almost two in three Americans, 64 percent, said they have confidence that Obama's economic policies will improve the economy, but that number has dropped since he took office and began to implement his ideas. Before his inauguration, 72 percent were confident that his economic agenda would lead to a recovery. Now, after two months of vigorous debate about his stimulus package and ambitious budget blueprint, confidence has decreased by 13 points among independents and by a similar amount among Republicans.
At the same time, 62 percent see Obama as a "new-style," fiscally responsible Democrat; fewer, about a third, label him an "old-style" Democrat oriented toward taxing and spending. Fifty-seven percent of independents consider Obama part of a new breed, the same percentage that said so of Clinton at the start of his first term.
The findings suggest that the public continues to give Obama considerable latitude as he attempts to jump-start the economy, but public patience may be limited. The coming debate over his budget, where he faces both Democratic and Republican resistance to some of his major priorities, should produce a more definitive first-year judgment on his economic program and his presidency. Clinton's ratings fell his first summer in office as he pushed through a budget and economic plan over solid Republican opposition.
The telephone poll of 1,000 randomly selected adults was conducted from Thursday through Sunday. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.
When it comes to assessing responsibility for the nation's economic plight, 80 percent said they put a "great deal" or a "good amount" of blame on banks and other financial institutions for taking unnecessary risks. The same percentage said they blame large corporations for poor management decisions. About seven in 10 blame consumers for overextending themselves with debt and the Bush administration for not vigorously regulating the financial industry.
Criticism of the banks, large corporations and consumers is roughly comparable across the political spectrum. But there is clear disagreement over whether Obama bears any of the blame, with Republicans far more likely to say yes than are Democrats or independents. Republicans, however, were as apt to blame the Bush administration for lax regulation as they were to target Obama for not doing enough to fix the problems.
Obama maintains a strong hand in his dealings with congressional Republicans. The public prefers his approach to that of the Republicans by more than two to one. But the percentage of independents siding with Obama has dropped 12 points, to 50 percent. Many of those independents in the new poll said neither has the upper hand in the economic debate. About a quarter of independents align with the Republicans on this question.
At the same time, Republicans are somewhat splintered. One in five self-identified Republicans in the poll said neither Obama nor their party's congressional leadership has the edge on dealing with the economic situation.
One way the administration has sought to increase confidence in Obama's economic plans and campaign pledge of transparency was to launch Recovery.gov to allow people to track federal money spent on economic stimulus; 6 percent of Americans said they have visited the Web site.
Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.