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Public Confidence in Stimulus Package's Effectiveness Ebbs, Poll Finds

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The Post's Jennifer Agiesta highlights public opinion tied to the Obama administration's handling of key policy issues.

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By Dan Balz and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Barely half of Americans are now confident that President Obama's $787 billion stimulus measure will boost the economy, and the rapid rise in optimism about the state of the nation that followed the 2008 election has abated, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

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Overall, 52 percent now say the stimulus package has succeeded or will succeed in restoring the economy, compared with 59 percent two months ago. The falloff in confidence has been sharpest in the hard-hit Midwest, where fewer than half now see the government spending as succeeding. In April, six in 10 Midwesterners said the federal program had worked or would do so.

The tempered public outlook has not significantly affected Obama's overall approval rating, which at 65 percent in the new survey outpaces the ratings of Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at similar points in their tenures. But new questions about the stimulus package's effectiveness underscore the stakes for the Obama administration in the months ahead as it pushes for big reforms in health care and energy at the same time it attempts to revive the nation's flagging economy.

Obama maintains leverage on these issues in part because of the continuing weakness of his opposition. The survey found the favorability ratings of congressional Republicans at their lowest point in more than a decade. Obama also has significant advantages over GOP lawmakers in terms of public trust on dealing with the economy, health care, the deficit and the threat of terrorism, despite broad-based Republican criticism of his early actions on these fronts.

With unemployment projected to continue rising and fears that the big run-up in stock prices since February may have been a temporary trend, fixing the economy remains the most critical issue of Obama's presidency -- and retaining public confidence in his policies is an important element of his recovery strategy.

The shift in public assessments of the stimulus package has clear political ramifications: At the 100-day mark of Obama's presidency, 63 percent of people in states that were decided by fewer than 10 percentage points in November said the stimulus act had or would boost the economy. Today, in the telephone poll of 1,001 Americans conducted Thursday through Sunday, the number has plummeted to 50 percent in those closely contested states, with nearly as many now saying the stimulus program will not help the national economy.

The falloff since April cuts across partisan lines. Confidence in the package's effectiveness has dropped from 81 percent to 73 percent among Democrats and from 32 percent to 26 percent among Republicans. Among independents, it has dropped from 56 percent to 50 percent. What was once a clearly positive assessment of the program among independents (56 to 39 percent) is now an almost even split (50 to 47 percent).

Public confidence in the direction of the country remains well above pre-election lows, but in the new survey, that indicator stopped rising for the first time since the election. In April, the number of Americans saying things were moving in a positive direction hit 50 percent for the first time in more than six years, up from single digits before the November election. In the new survey, 47 percent said they believe the country is moving in the right direction and 50 percent said it is pretty seriously off on the wrong track.

Obama's approval rating is slightly lower than it was in April, and his disapproval figure has risen by five percentage points. In general, public approval of his handling of major issues is lower than his overall rating. Still, majorities of Americans said they approved of Obama's handling of the economy, health care and global warming.

Two weak points on the domestic front remain: Obama still gets tepid marks on his handling of problems facing the big U.S. automakers, and as many people disapprove as approve of his handling of the federal budget deficit. On the deficit, intensity runs against the president, with 35 percent "strongly" disapproving, compared with 22 percent who say they are solidly behind his efforts.

More broadly, worries about the deficit remain widespread, with almost nine in 10 Americans saying they are "very" or "somewhat" concerned about its size.

One factor that continues to work for Obama, however, is that most Americans still see him as a new type of Democrat, one "who will be careful with the public's money," rather than an old-style, "tax-and-spend Democrat." By this point in 1993, Clinton had lost the new-style label, which he had maintained over the first months of his presidency.

Obama has used the power and financial resources of the federal government repeatedly as he has dealt with the country's problems this year, to the consternation of his Republican critics. The poll found little change in underlying public attitudes toward government since the inauguration, with slightly more than half saying they prefer a smaller government with fewer services to a larger government with more services. Independents, however, now split 61 to 35 percent in favor of a smaller government; they were more narrowly divided on this question a year ago (52 to 44 percent), before the financial crisis hit.

As in previous polls, Obama's ratings on foreign policy are generally higher than on domestic issues. Six in 10 said they approve of his handling of international affairs, and 57 percent said they approve of his handling of the threat of terrorism. More said Obama's policies are making the United States safer than said they have weakened the country, but, as in April, a plurality said they have not made much of a difference.

But on specific questions about the use of torture in terrorism investigations and the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, there is still broad public pushback to his announced policies. Fewer than half, 45 percent, said they approve of shutting down the military prison, and when asked whether they would accept those terrorism suspects in their home states, support dropped to 37 percent.

The country remains sharply divided on torture, with nearly half saying there are cases in which torture should be considered. The president has condemned the practice.

On Iran, some Republicans have criticized Obama's response to the recent anti-government demonstrations there, with critics saying he has not been vocal enough in promoting democracy and in siding with the protesters. In the new survey, 52 percent said they approved of how he has handled the situation. There has been no noticeable change in assessments of his handling of relations with Iran since the last poll in April, before the controversy over the Iranian presidential election erupted.

The state of the Republican Party remains grim. Just 22 percent of those surveyed identified themselves as Republicans, near April's decades-long low point. Thirty-six percent said they have a favorable impression of the GOP, and 56 percent said they have an unfavorable impression. (Fifty-three percent said they have a favorable view of the Democratic Party.)

Obama leads congressional Republicans by more than 20 points in public trust on dealing with health care, the deficit, terrorism and the economy. The margin on the economy has slipped since April, but it remains a hefty 55 percent to 31 percent.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's ratings stand at 38 percent positive and 45 percent negative. The last time the Post-ABC poll asked about Pelosi (D-Calif.) was in April 2007. At that time, 53 percent said they approved of the way she was handling her job and 35 percent disapproved.

The latest poll has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.


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