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.)
This article appears in the October 15, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.