Eroding confidence in President Barack Obama’s handling of the economy and ability to control on spending have caused his approval ratings to wilt to their lowest levels since taking office, according to a spate of recent polls, a sign of political weakness that comes just as he most needs leverage on Capitol Hill.
The good news for Obama is that his approval ratings—57 percent in a Gallup tracking poll over the weekend—remain comfortably high by historical standards for presidents.
But the trend lines among a variety of polls over the past several days are unmistakable: Independents and even some Republicans who once viewed him sympathetically are becoming skeptical, and many people of all stripes are anxious about economic and fiscal trends.
Obama’s approval rating has dipped below 60 percent on other occasions according to Gallup, but while those slumps lasted only a day, this one appears to be more persistent.
So is the intensity of partisan reaction to Obama, who ran on the promise of softening ideological divisions and unifying Americans. On Sunday, a Rasmussen Reports tracking poll found that 32 percent of Americans strongly approved of the president while 32 percent strongly disapproved.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said the Obama administration should look at the new results “as a warning sign,” but added that the new numbers were “not an indication of a loss of fundamental political support.”
“The real driver is not the president’s personal popularity,” which remains robust, Kohut said, “but faith in him to deal with the nation’s number one problem”—i.e, the economy.
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This highlights how some of Obama’s political fortunes remain outside his control, dependant on employment figures which have continued to worsen even as the federal government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on measures to stimulate the economy and bail out the financial services sector.
Surveys released last week by Pew, NBC News/Wall Street Journal and The New York Times/CBS News, show the percentage of Americans show a similar pattern. The Pew survey, for example, registered an eight-point drop in public approval for Obama’s handling of the economy—falling from 60 percent to 52 percent between mid-April and June. The percentage of Americans who disapprove jumped by 7 points during the same period.
Though Democrats are still generally more supportive of the administration overall, the slide in the president’s economic numbers defied partisan boundaries. The Pew survey, for instance, showed support for Obama’s handling of the economy sliding six percentage points even among Democrats and independents.
Other factors driving the numbers will figure importantly in the debate this summer and fall over how to overhaul the nation’s health care system—a popular goal but one that comes with a trillion-dollar price tag.
Analyzing of her firm’s latest poll, Gallup’s Lydia Saad said it is “not clear what’s behind the decline” in the president’s numbers, but pointed to growing concerns over the administration’s deficit spending as a likely cause.
In last week’s New York Times/CBS News poll, where the president’s approval stands at 63 percent, 60 percent said the Obama administration has not developed a “clear plan” for dealing with budget deficits. Additionally, 52 percent said the government should “not spend money to stimulate the economy and should focus instead on reducing the deficit.”
Obama’s intervention in the auto industry is a source of concern—and is likely a major engine of controversy if the bailout does not show positive results over the long haul.
According to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, nearly 70 percent said they were concerned “a great deal” or “quite a bit” about the government’s takeover of General Motors. Pew found a nearly even split on the administration’s approach to helping troubled automakers: 47 percent approve while 44 percent disapprove.
The specific weaknesses in Obama’s standing with the public come in the context of general strength.
Even the Pew numbers registering rising disapproval of his handling of economic measures still showed public optimism—65 percent to 28—that Obama’s policy will cause the economy to improve.
And the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which gave him his lowest job approval (56 percent) since taking office, also showed him to be uncommonly popular at the personal level: 60 percent view him favorably, compared to 29 percent who view him unfavorably.
Those are numbers that most politicians would crave. For instance, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) favorability rating stood at 24 percent in the poll, just below former Vice President Dick Cheney’s 26 percent. In addition, the Democratic Party is viewed favorably by 45 percent of those polled, compared to 25 percent for the Republican Party.
Obama’s strategists seem to be reading the same polls or similar ones of their own. Within the last few weeks, the Obama team has been trying to trumpet what it sees as the successes of the stimulus package as well as a series of fiscal responsibility initiatives like “pay as you go,” or Paygo, legislation. And although the president changed the subject to health care last week, economic questions lingered.
In interviews, President Obama acknowledged the steep challenges his administration still faces on the economic front, including the rising tide of unemployment, which he said could reach 10 percent by the end of the year.
“I think that the economy is going to turn around. But as you know, jobs are a lagging indicator,” Obama said in the interview with Bloomberg News last week, “and we’ve got to produce 150,000 jobs every month just to keep pace, just to flatten this out.
Bill Beach, an expert on fiscal issues with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said remarks like that reflect “tonal changes” in the way the administration is communicating about the economy and, he suspects, “the president’s sense that things need to be fine tuned.”
Beach said the sagging poll numbers on economic issues are very likely a sign that the public is embracing the notion that the economic problems Obama inherited from President Bush are now wholly owned by the new administration.
“President Obama is seen as in charge of economic policy and the economy has not improved a tremendous amount,” Beach said. “His bad marks reflect the fact that it’s no longer appropriate to blame Bush.”
Mickey Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, offered an explanation for why his own national survey and many others show a gradual rise in disapproval of the president’s handling of the economy: “Maybe people are starting to say, ‘where is the money going to come from?’”
“The programs are very specific and very ambitious,” Carroll said, “but the financing is a little bit fuzzier.”
Republicans are seizing on both the vagaries of Obama’s economic programs and the public’s growing anxiety in hopes of turning a soft spot into a political opening much more debilitating problem. In response, White House aides cite the president’s promises to shave $100 million from the federal budget over the short term and halve the deficit in four years.
Daniel Gotoff, a Democratic strategist and pollster with Lake Research Partners, said it’s natural that President Obama’s overall job approval would take a hit as Americans grow more skeptical about his handling of the economy.
“On the one hand, any sort of movement on an issue that a majority of Americans are saying is their top concern is something that you want to pay attention to,” Gotoff said. “On the other hand, I think it’s probably getting a little too much focus given the size of the shift.”
To reverse the trend, Gotoff noted the White House would well-served by giving “a little bit more exposure” to initiatives like Vice President Biden’s Middle Class Task Force and by keeping stimulus money flowing to the states.
Ed Goeas, a long-time Republican pollster, said that it is clear the White House is aware the public is casting a skeptical eye on the administration’s economic policies and job creation claims and subtly shifting its message as a result. White House officials, he said, used to talk about “saving or creating” jobs, and now they’re just focusing on “saving” them.
Goeas said the Obama team is aware the stakes are high.
“The biggest lagging indicator is not the unemployment rate, it’s consumer feeling about the economy,” Goeas said. “If this economy isn’t showing strong improvement by the second quarter of next year, that is going to be the framework for the 2010 election and the Obama people know it.”