The Washington Post

Economic anxiety threatens Obama in 2012, but in poll he edges GOP rivals

President Obama presents the Commander-in-Chief Trophy to the Air Force Academy football team in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Monday, April 18, 2011. (Joshua Roberts/BLOOMBERG)

Deepening economic pessimism has pushed down President Obama’s approval rating to a near record low, but he holds an early advantage over prospective 2012 rivals in part because of widespread dissatisfaction with Republican candidates, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

In the survey, 47 percent approve of the job Obama is doing, down seven points since January. Half of all Americans disapprove of his job performance, with 37 percent saying they “strongly disapprove,” nearly matching the worst level of his presidency.

Driving the downward movement in Obama’s standing are renewed concerns about the economy and fresh worry about rising prices, particularly for gasoline. Despite signs of economic growth, 44 percent of Americans see the economy as getting worse, the highest percentage to say so in more than two years.

The toll on Obama is direct: 57 percent disapprove of the job the president is doing dealing with the economy, tying his highest negative rating when it comes to the issue. And the president is doing a bit worse among politically important independents.

If Obama is running into headwinds, however, his potential Republican opponents face serious problems, as well. Less than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say they are satisfied with the field of GOP candidates.

That field is still taking shape, but the sentiment is a big falloff from four years ago, when nearly two-thirds of Republicans were satisfied with their options.

Lack of enthusiasm for the candidates came in other measures, as well. When Republicans and GOP-leaners were asked who they would vote for in a primary or caucus, only former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney registered in double digits, with 16 percent. More than double that number expressed no opinion and an additional 12 percent volunteered “none” or “no one.”

Businessman Donald Trump (8 percent), former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (6 percent) and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin (5 percent) were the only other names volunteered by more than 2 percent of respondents.

Possible challengers

In hypothetical matchups for the general election, the president runs ahead of all seven potential GOP rivals tested in the new poll.

If the election were held now, Romney and Huckabee would mount the stiffest challenges, trailing Obama by four and six percentage points respectively, among all Americans as well as among registered voters.

Obama has double-digit leads over the other five tested — a dozen points against Trump and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), 15 against Newt Gingrich and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and 17 points over Palin.

Despite his current advantage over the Republican field, Obama remains vulnerable with an approval rating again less than 50 percent. A majority of those younger than 40 give the president positive ratings, but most of those 40 and older disapprove.

Obama’s standing shows he has lost his post-midterm election gains. His 54 percent rating in January followed a well-received speech at a memorial service for the victims of the Tucson shootings, and came after a lame-duck congressional session during which he scored a series of legislative achievements.

The latest findings come after the compromise agreement between Obama and Republicans to cut spending in the current fiscal year. It also comes less than a week after the president outlined his proposals for dealing with the country’s debt and deficit problems in a speech that included a withering attack on a Republican proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

It is Obama’s standing among independents that is a prime cause for concern inside the White House and Obama reelection campaign.

Independents backed Obama and other Democrats in 2008, but those who voted last year went decisively for Republicans. Obama’s political advisers are closely monitoring independents and many of his moves in the past few months have been aimed at shoring up their support.

Among independents, 55 percent disapprove of the job he is doing, near record highs. And for the first time, about as many independents have generally unfavorable (49 percent) as mostly favorable (50 percent) impressions of Obama.

In the hypothetical 2012 matchups, Romney and Huckabee run a touch higher than Obama among independents.

Then-President Ronald Reagan was also below 50 percent at this point in 1983, but April of that year marked the last time before his 1984 landslide that he did not have majority approval in Post-ABC polling. In spring 1995, then-President Bill Clinton was also on the upswing, falling below 50 percent only in June of that year.

Gas prices an indicator

Economic issues remain the biggest potential obstacle to Obama’s reelection, with rising gas prices a sensitive indicator for the public. Almost eight in 10 say inflation in their area is getting worse, and more than seven in 10 say higher gasoline prices is causing financial hardship at home.

Obama trails all seven Republicans among those who see the economy as getting worse — Republicans are more apt than Democrats to perceive weakening — and the president runs about evenly with potential competitors among those who report being the hardest hit by skyrocketing prices at the pump.

Economic anxiety also amplifies the president’s challenges among core voter groups: For the first time in available data, more than half of whites without college degrees see the economy as deteriorating.

The telephone poll was conducted April 14-17 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults interviewed on conventional or cellular telephone. The margin of sampling error for the full poll is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points; it is five points for the sample of self-identified Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.

Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.

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