Like an early-autumn frost, a blast of pessimism about the country’s direction has snapped a slow but steady warming trend toward President Obama in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey.
Just 44 percent of those surveyed said they approved of Obama’s performance as president—his lowest rating in the 10 Heartland Monitor polls conducted since April 2009. Likewise, the share of adults disapproving of his performance also reached a high at 50 percent. Those results reversed modest but consistent gains for Obama since his previous low point in the survey in August 2010. In the most recent survey, conducted last May in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid, Obama’s approval rating had edged up to 51 percent, with only 41 percent disapproving.
Equally ominous for the president: 70 percent of those polled in the new survey said that the country was on the wrong track. That’s a sharp increase just since the most recent Heartland Monitor in May—and by far the highest level of dissatisfaction over the country’s direction recorded in any of the 10 polls. (The previous high was 62 percent in August 2010, just before the GOP landslide in the midterm elections that year.) Only one-fifth believed the country was moving in the right direction.
Most political scientists and pollsters agree that, especially in presidential races involving an incumbent, those bottom-line measures—the approval rating and the right-track/wrong-track assessment—are the most powerful predictors of the vote. Obama still has time to regain lost ground, but on both fronts, his position today more resembles the profile of incumbents who were defeated than those who won reelection.
Increasing anxiety about the future appears to be hurting Obama more than growing pain in the present. The share of adults who said they have trouble making ends meet—22 percent—was unchanged from previous polls in 2009 and 2010. But in the new poll, fully 46 percent said they expected the economy to deteriorate over the next year, a big jump from the 32 percent who took that gloomy view last May. Fifty percent still expected the economy to improve, but that was a notable drop from the 61 percent last May who saw sun peeking through the clouds.
Other measures in the survey showed more stability—and in some cases strength—for Obama. The best news in the poll for the president is that adults still preferred him over congressional Republicans by 40 percent to 33 percent when asked whom they trusted to solve the nation’s economic problems. Still, even on that question, independents split almost in half, and whites preferred the GOP, just as they have in every Heartland Monitor poll since January 2010.
On the broadest question about Obama’s agenda, the president maintains a thin majority of hope: The share that said the country was already “significantly better off” because of his agenda (11 percent) or at least was “beginning to move in the right direction” because of his policies (42 percent) still exceeded 50 percent. But that collective 53 percent represented the smallest combined positive response that Obama has received in the seven times the poll has asked this question; and the 41 percent who said that the country was “significantly worse off” because of his policies tied the previous high from August 2010. Among independents, the combined positive responses in the new poll fell to 48 percent, the first time it has dipped below 50 percent. It also was the first time that a majority of whites (51 percent) said that the country was worse off because of Obama’s agenda.
The president continues to face negative judgments on other important measures. In a slight deterioration since last May, 51 percent of those polled said they were now inclined to vote against him in 2012, while 41 percent said they were inclined to support him. Just 31 percent of those polled said that his agenda has increased “opportunity for people like you to get ahead,” while 37 percent said it has decreased their opportunities and 26 percent said it has had no effect. (Whites are now twice as likely to say that Obama’s agenda will decrease, rather than increase, their opportunities.)
Similarly, 43 percent said that Obama’s policies helped “avoid an even worse financial crisis and are laying the foundation for our eventual economic recovery,” while a 48 percent plurality said that his agenda ran up “a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession.”
The depth of the anxiety over the country’s direction should be as troubling for Obama as its breadth. At least 69 percent of adults at every income level felt the country was on the wrong track, as did at least 69 percent of adults at every age range above 30. (Younger people were hardly bursting with optimism: 58 percent of them said that the country was on the wrong track, about double the share who thought it was moving in the right direction.) Whites are registering historic levels of gloom: Nearly four-fifths of them believed that the nation was on the wrong track. But even about three-fifths of Hispanics agreed. Only a majority of African-Americans expressed positive views.
The assessments of Obama’s job performance tell a story of similarly panoramic displeasure. Just 35 percent of independents said they approved, by far his worst showing in the Heartland Monitor poll. Among whites, his ratings cratered to 34 percent, also a new low. Even among white women with a college
education—consistently Obama’s strongest group in the white electorate—his ratings tumbled below 40 percent. Among adults under 30 and Hispanics, two other cornerstones of his 2008 coalition, Obama managed no more than about 50 percent approval.
Nearly four in 10 adults overall (and almost half of whites) said they strongly disapproved of his performance. Equal numbers of each group said they definitely intend to vote against him in 2012. Both of those numbers track closely with the 41 percent overall (and, again, half of whites) who said that his agenda has left the country worse off.
Besieged from so many directions, the White House might take slight encouragement from the fact that the eroding faith in Obama’s performance has not been matched by an equal ideological embrace of conservative principles. Asked about the proper role of government in society, the share that endorsed the Reagan-like view that “in the current economic environment, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” rose, but only slightly, to 40 percent. (There’s that number again.)
Only 27 percent, unchanged since last spring, endorsed the traditional Democratic view that “in the current economic environment, the government must play an active role in regulating the marketplace.”
The remaining 29 percent (a slight dip from 34 percent last spring) took the equivocal position that they were open to government intervening in the market “to ensure it benefits people like me” but remained uncertain that it could do so effectively. Those conflicted voters—like those who haven’t written off Obama’s agenda despite concluding it hasn’t yet produced benefits—represent the last line of defense for a president confronting a hardening core, and widening circle, of discontent.
This article appears in the October 15, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.