WASHINGTON - When Barack Obama entered office, the expectations that he and others set for his presidency couldn’t have been higher.
Obama announced that he was embarking on an ambitious agenda — to create new jobs, to reform the nation’s health care system, to lessen the world’s nuclear threats and to curb partisan bickering.
“We have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord,” he said in his inaugural address. “On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.”
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But as Obama wraps up his first full year in office, the American public has grown increasingly skeptical over his promises to change Washington and his "yes-we-can" agenda, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
A plurality of Americans believe his health care overhaul is a bad idea; fewer than one in five are satisfied with the economy; just 30 percent give him good marks on changing business as usual in Washington; and a majority think he has accomplished “very little” or “only some” of his goals over the past 12 months.
“What Americans wanted and expected was a better economy, a reduced presence in Iraq and a fundamental change in the way Washington does business,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with GOP pollster Bill McInturff.
“This hasn’t happened. And not surprisingly, the president has suffered.”
Still, the message of hope that Obama campaigned on hasn’t necessarily evaporated. Nearly four in 10 believe that he will be a successful president, and a nearly identical number of Americans say it’s too early to make a judgment about his presidency.
Indeed, as Obama also declared at his inaugural, the country’s challenges wouldn’t be solved in a year. “They are serious, and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time.”
Personal Obama vs. professional Obama
In the poll — which was conducted between Jan. 10 and Jan. 14 of 1,002 adults with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points — Americans appear to have two different views of the president: They like him personally, but are more doubtful about his positions on the issues.
A combined three-quarters say they personally like Obama, and 52 percent have a positive view of him, compared with 35 percent who have a negative one.
In addition, he receives his highest scores on being easy-going and likeable (a combined 72 percent), being inspirational and exciting (59 percent), having strong leadership qualities (57 percent), being honest and straightforward (51 percent) and representing traditional American values (51 percent).
But Obama gets lower scores on the professional aspects of his job — being a firm and decisive decision-maker (49 percent), being a good commander in chief (49 percent), being knowledgeable and experienced (47 percent), uniting the country (40 percent), achieving his goals (40 percent), sharing Americans’ positions on the issues (38 percent), and changing “business as usual” in Washington (30 percent).
What’s more, only 35 percent say they’re confident the president has the right set of goals and policies, and 54 percent believe he has accomplished “very little” or “only some” of his first-year office goals, versus 45 percent who think he’s accomplished “a great deal” or “a fair amount.”
Overall, Obama’s job-approval rating sits at 48 percent, up one point from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey in December. But it’s down from the 60 percent rating he held after taking office.
Health care, economy drag down Obama Attitudes about the economy and the protracted debate over health care appear to be dragging down the president’s political standing, the poll also finds.
Only 33 percent say that Obama’s health care plan is a good idea, compared with 46 percent who believe it’s a bad one.
That result is essentially unchanged from last month's poll. However, the number saying that Obama's health plan is a bad idea has increased 20 percentage points since April, when the public supported the reform effort by a 33 percent to 26 percent margin.
Moreover, 48 percent consider the health care legislation to be a step backward if it becomes law, versus 42 percent who say it would be a step forward.
And only 38 percent approve of the president’s handling of health care, although that number is higher than the 26 percent who approve how congressional Republicans have handled health care.
The economy also remains a problem for the administration. Just 16 percent say they’re satisfied with the state of the U.S. economy, compared with a whopping 83 percent who say they’re dissatisfied.
“The ringing in of 2010 brought little cheer to Americans,” said McInturff, the GOP pollster. “The mood continues to be in the doldrums.”
Still, almost two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) maintain that the current economy is a situation Obama inherited. Only 17 percent believe the president’s economic policies are responsible for the economy.
Government isn’t the answer?
But the poll also shows dissatisfaction with the government’s expanded role in the economy.
Fifty-three percent say they disapprove of the federal government’s expanded role in the efforts to fix the nation’s economy.
What’s more, 60 percent disapprove of the government’s financial help to banks and other lending institutions, and 65 percent disapprove of the government’s ownership stake in General Motors.
By contrast, 82 percent approve of the measure Obama signed into law placing new restrictions on credit card companies; another 82 percent approve of the administration’s work to extend unemployment benefits; and 68 percent approve of the tax cuts that were contained in the economic stimulus that was signed into law last year.
Americans approve of the entire stimulus package by a narrow 49 percent to 43 percent margin.
Overall, according to the poll, 48 percent believe the government is doing too many things, versus 43 percent who think it should be doing more things.
That’s a turnaround from the survey taken immediately after Obama became president, which found the public supporting a greater role in government, 51 percent to 40 percent.
The GOP’s enthusiasm edge
Looking ahead to this year’s congressional midterm elections, the poll shows the Republican Party with a significant advantage in enthusiasm.
Sixty percent of Republicans express high interest in the November midterms, compared with only 44 percent of Democrats.
In addition, registered voters are split, 41 percent to 41 percent, over their preference for a Democratic- or a Republican-controlled Congress, which is the GOP’s best showing on this question since Dec. 2003.
And voters who have a high interest in the midterms prefer Republicans by 15 points, 50 percent to 35 percent.
Still, the Republican Party continues to have a problem with its brand. Only 30 percent have a positive view of the GOP, and 42 percent have a negative view. (By comparison, the Democratic Party has a 38 percent to 41 percent positive/negative score.)
And a year after leaving office, George W. Bush’s poll numbers are essentially unchanged: 30 percent see him in a positive light, versus 51 percent who view him negatively.
When he left office in January 2009, Bush held a 31 percent to 58 percent positive/negative rating.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.