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Americans remain closely divided over President Obama's performance, but all of the trend lines continue to move against him as the critical midterm elections approach, according to the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll.
For the first time in a Heartland Monitor survey, more adults said they disapproved (49 percent) than approved (46 percent) of Obama's job performance. Compared with Obama's showing in the April survey (when 48 percent approved and 46 percent disapproved) the numbers represent only a slight erosion that is within the poll's margin of error. Compared with other presidents who governed through sustained downturns, notably Ronald Reagan, Obama's 46 percent rating is relatively strong. But in each of the six Heartland Monitor surveys, the share of Americans who disapprove of Obama's performance has increased, as has the share that strongly disapproves.
The Heartland Monitor poll surveyed 1,201 adults from August 27 through 30. The survey, conducted by FD, a communications strategy consulting firm, has a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percentage points.
The same pattern of slow but steady decline is evident on most of the other gauges of Obama's performance. In the new poll, 48 percent of adults said that the president's economic policies had "run up a record deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses"; just 39 percent said that he had helped "avoid an even worse economic crisis" and is "laying the foundation for our eventual economic recovery." In April, poll respondents had tilted toward that negative assessment by a narrower ratio, 46 percent to 42 percent; last September, they split evenly, with positive and negative views both at 43 percent.
In the most recent survey, just 32 percent of adults said that Obama's actions will increase opportunity for people like them to get ahead, while 38 percent said it would reduce their opportunities. (The rest said it would have no impact or didn't know.) Once again, that result shows a slight tilt, within the poll's margin of error, away from Obama since April and a larger drift since July 2009, when 40 percent thought that his actions would increase their opportunities and only 30 percent believed the opposite.
The trajectory is similar on the survey's broadest question about Obama's impact. In the new poll, 41 percent of adults said that the country is "significantly worse off because of the policies Obama has pursued." That's up from 37 percent in April and 31 percent in January. Just 11 percent of those polled in the new survey said they believe that the country is "significantly better off" because of Obama's policies. That response is little changed from earlier this year. Meanwhile, the share of adults who believe that Obama's policies haven't improved conditions yet but are beginning to move the country in the right direction, stood at 44 percent in the new poll, down from 52 percent in January.
Across a wide variety of questions, about two-fifths of adults appeared deeply estranged from Obama and his agenda. That includes the 38 percent who said his policies will diminish their opportunities; the 39 percent who strongly disapproved of his performance; and the 41 percent who said they believe that the country is worse off because of his agenda. Likewise, 38 percent of those polled said they definitely intend to vote against Obama in 2012. (Overall 52 percent said they are now inclined to oppose Obama's re-election and 39 percent said they are inclined to vote for him; these numbers, which historically are a less useful predictor of actual voting intent than the president's approval rating, have hardly budged all year.)
A big turnout among small-government conservatives angry about the cost and scope of Obama's agenda looms as a major threat to congressional Democrats in November's midterms. The poll shows registered voters split about evenly on which party they intend to support for Congress, with 38 percent preferring Democratic candidates and 36 percent backing Republicans. But other measures (including the fact that Obama's approval rating remains stuck below 50 percent) suggest a more foreboding outcome for the Democrats.
The new poll captured a sharp decline in optimism that the economy will improve over the next year, and a spike in the percentage of Americans who said that the country is on the wrong track, from 54 percent in April to 62 percent now. That's the highest wrong-track reading in any of the six Heartland Monitor polls since April 2009. Just 27 percent said they think that the country is on the right track. Historically, that level of dissatisfaction with the country's direction has produced dismal results for the party in power.
Obama's situation in the poll, though, remains more equivocal. The closely balanced scales are framed by the question on the impact of his policies: Although two-fifths strongly oppose his direction, he retains a thin potential majority of support between the 11 percent who said they believe he has already improved conditions and the 41 percent who said his agenda is moving the country in the right direction. Obama still draws positive job approval from three-fourths of those who said his agenda has set the right direction even if it hasn't produced results yet; he'll need to hold that group if conditions don't improve.
Obama may also benefit from limited enthusiasm about the Republican alternatives. While the share of adults who said they trust congressional Republicans more than Obama to handle the country's economic problems has increased, he still leads on that measure 42 percent to 37 percent.
Moreover, only 35 percent of the adults polled said they want to extend all of the tax cuts passed under former President Bush, as congressional Republicans are proposing; 20 percent would allow all of the tax cuts to expire, and 36 percent would extend only those for families earning less than $250,000 annually, as Obama and congressional Democrats have proposed. By a plurality of 45 percent to 33 percent, poll respondents were more likely to say that congressional Republicans are offering an economic agenda similar to Bush's than to say they are proposing something different.
Yet for all these mitigating factors, the poll shows Obama suffering unmistakable, if not headlong, erosion among key voter groups on all of the largest questions. Many of the groups that resisted him in 2008 have cooled further. Among white men without a college education, his job approval has dropped from 50 percent in April 2009 to just 30 percent now; they prefer Republicans by 20 percentage points in the fall election. His approval among white women without a college education, another skeptical group in 2008, has also dropped, from 53 percent in April 2009 to 40 percent now. The only reason he hasn't slipped as much with college-educated white men is that they never much warmed to him, but even so, his approval with this group has dipped to 38 percent (from 46 percent last April).
Even more troubling for Obama may be his diminished numbers among groups he carried in 2008. His approval rating among independents remains stuck at 43 percent (down from 61 percent in April 2009). His approval among college-educated white women (46 percent) still exceeds his showing among any other whites, but is down from 64 percent in April 2009. Among Hispanics, Obama's approval has tumbled from 81 percent in April 2009 to 53 percent now. In October 2009, Hispanics were about twice as likely to say that Obama's economic agenda averted disaster as to say it increased the deficit with few benefits; now, a plurality give his agenda negative reviews.
Obama's numbers with all of these groups have largely stabilized this year after dropping sharply in late 2009. And many of these voters may respond well to the inevitable contrasts the president will draw with his 2102 Republican opponent. Economic recovery inevitably would patch some of these holes, too. But for now, all of these trends represent cracks in the foundation of his electoral coalition.
This article appears in the September 11, 2010, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.