A slow warming trend toward President Obama continued in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, although the country remains closely divided on his performance and agenda.
(MORE ON THE POLL: Why Americans Still Want Homes of Their Own)
The poll suggests that some voters may be giving Obama a second look as he has repositioned himself with a series of high-profile bipartisan legislative agreements and a new rhetorical emphasis on international competitiveness. Thirty percent of those polled in the most recent survey said that in the past several months the president had “changed his approach in office” for the better, and only 13 percent said he had changed it for the worse. Half of those polled said they saw no change.
Independents, Seniors and Educated White Men: Obama is Moving in the Right Direction
As is often the case with such poll questions, those who like Obama the most were also the most likely to see improvement. That view was far more common among Democrats than Republicans, and among minorities than whites. But even in groups that have been skeptical of the president, pluralities believe that he is moving in the right direction. Independents, seniors, and college-educated white men all broke solidly for Republicans in the 2010 midterm landslide. But about 30 percent of each group said they believed that Obama’s approach to office was improving. In each case, that was at least double the share that said his performance was deteriorating.
Those sentiments didn’t translate to gains for Obama on one measure: Just 40 percent of registered voters who were polled said they would vote to reelect him if the 2012 election were held today, compared with 50 percent who said they are now inclined to vote for someone else. That’s virtually unchanged from the results in each of the three previous Heartland Monitor polls that asked the question in 2010.
Approval Rating Gradually Improving
But most political scientists and electoral strategists agree that a president’s approval rating is the best barometer of his chances for reelection, and on that front, Obama continued to improve his standing, although only gradually.
In the latest survey, 49 percent of those polled said they approved of Obama’s performance as president, and 44 percent disapproved. That’s a change only within the margin of error since the December Heartland Monitor, when 48 percent approved and 46 percent disapproved. Still, Obama’s approval rating is the highest the poll has recorded for him since September 2009.
And beneath the top-line number were some other encouraging signs for the president. In particular, independents who said they approved of his performance (47 percent) exceeded those who said they disapproved (43 percent); that is the first time more independents approved than disapproved of Obama’s performance in a Heartland survey since September 2009.
Opposition to Obama is Cooling
Another positive trend for the White House is worth watching: The fire of intense opposition to Obama seems to be slightly cooling. In last August’s survey, 39 percent of those polled said they strongly disapproved of his job performance, the highest level recorded in any Heartland Monitor. That number declined to 35 percent in December and receded to 30 percent in the latest survey. In the August 2010 poll, the share of respondents who strongly disapproved of Obama exceeded the share who strongly approved by about 50 percent. In the new survey, the intensity gap is closing: 24 percent strongly approve, compared with the 30 percent who strongly disapprove. The gap between Obama’s strong supporters and fervent detractors is the narrowest it has been since January of 2010.
Approval Among Whites, Skepticism of Agenda Holds Steady
Other measures show little change since last winter. Obama’s approval rating among whites remained at just 39 percent; it hasn’t cracked 40 percent since September 2009. On another question, 40 percent of those polled said they most trust Obama to develop solutions to the country’s economic problems; 36 percent said they most trusted Republicans. That split is little changed from the previous two surveys. As in those earlier polls, a solid plurality of whites placed more trust in Republicans and a preponderant majority of nonwhites (by a ratio of almost 4-to-1) chose Obama. In April 2009, whites put more trust in Obama over Republicans, by 17 percentage points; now whites trust Republicans over him, by 14 points.
In the new poll, slightly more Americans say that Obama’s agenda will decrease (34 percent) rather than increase (31 percent) opportunity for people like them to get ahead; the remaining 30 percent said it would not affect them. That’s also little changed from the three previous Heartland polls, going back to last April. On this question, again, minorities are much more likely to believe that Obama’s agenda will expand rather than reduce their opportunities, while a solid plurality of whites take the opposite view; college-educated whites are as skeptical as those without degrees. In no Heartland Monitor since last April have more than one-quarter of whites said that Obama’s agenda is increasing their opportunities.
One other telling contrast: Nearly two-fifths of those under 30 believe that Obama’s approach will expand their opportunities, compared with only one-fourth who believe he is constricting them. Among seniors, the proportions are reversed.
Obama’s Margin of Hope
One final key question also shows remarkable stability in attitudes, with Obama retaining a thin advantage. Asked about the impact of the president’s policies, 36 percent say that his actions have already made the country significantly worse off. Only 13 percent say that the country is already significantly better off because of his policies, but another 44 percent say that although Obama’s efforts have not yet produced significant improvement, they are beginning to move the nation in the right direction.
That combined 57 percent, almost unchanged over the past year, represents Obama’s margin of hope. That is the potential majority coalition that still sees cause for optimism in his course, even if he hasn’t yet closed the sale.
Scott Bland contributed
This article appears in the March 19, 2011, edition of National Journal.