Boosted by growing optimism about the economy, President Obama is showing signs of reassembling the coalition of support that powered him to his 2008 presidential victory.
In the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll, Obama’s approval rating rose to 51 percent, up from only 44 percent in each of the previous polls taken in October and December. That’s Obama’s highest approval rating in the Heartland Monitor since the survey taken immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. Other than that, the new survey marks the first time that Obama’s approval rating in the poll has crossed the critical 50 percent threshold since September 2009.
The survey suggests the overall verdict is split—Obama’s support is strengthening but hardly yet secure, and the country remains divided closely enough on his performance and agenda to virtually ensure a competitive general election against the Republican nominee. Indeed, just 44 percent of registered voters surveyed said they intend to vote for the president’s reelection, while 49 percent said they will likely or definitely vote for someone else. A series of economic measures also shows that Obama is continuing to receive equivocal ratings, especially from whites.
But the most revealing measure of electoral strength for an incumbent is his overall approval rating, and on that front the survey, conducted from March 3 to 6, showed Obama recording clear progress. Compared with the December survey, the new poll found his approval rating rising by 11 percentage points among independents; 8 among nonwhites; 6 among all whites; 7 among both college-educated white men and women; and 9 among the so-called waitress moms—white women without a college degree. Only among noncollege-educated white men did Obama remain stuck in neutral with virtually no gain from December.
With most of these groups, Obama’s approval rating is approaching his actual share of the 2008 vote. His approval rating now falls just short of his vote total among all whites (41 percent now, compared with 43 percent in 2008); nonwhites (76 percent versus 80 percent in 2008); independents (49 percent now versus 52 percent in 2008); college-educated white women (49 percent versus 52 percent); and noncollege white women (39 percent versus 41 percent). His approval ratings in the latest poll have surpassed his 2008 vote among Hispanics (72 percent versus 67 percent) and college-educated white men (44 percent versus 42 percent). Two notable exceptions: The president’s approval ratings among younger whites (41 percent) and white independents (40 percent) remain well below his 2008 totals.
Still, for all whites and all independents, Obama’s approval ratings in the latest poll are the highest since the October 2009 Heartland Monitor (apart from the survey after the bin Laden killing). He has also reestablished a lead of 44 percent to 36 percent when respondents were asked whether they trusted him or congressional Republicans more to develop solutions to the country’s problems. That’s his widest advantage on that question since January 2010.
The tailwind for Obama is steadily, if not spectacularly, expanding optimism about the economy. In October’s survey, Americans split almost in half, with 50 percent saying they expected the economy to improve over the next year and 46 percent expecting it to decline. But in the latest poll, 60 percent anticipated improvement over the next year, while just 33 percent forecast another downturn.
Only about half of workers without a college degree expected improvement over the next year, noted Brent McGoldrick and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Strategic Communications, a communications-strategy consulting firm that conducted the poll. But two-thirds of workers with at least a four-year college degree now expect better times. That’s important because in 2008 Obama ran better among whites with a college degree than those without one, and he will almost certainly need to replicate that performance in November to win another four years in the White House.
Yet several other questions underscored the headwinds still confronting the president as the economy slowly recovers from the devastation of the Great Recession.
Despite the improving economic expectations, just 45 percent of those polled described their finances as excellent or good; 54 percent said they were in only fair or poor shape. (Forty percent of noncollege whites, contrasted with 61 percent of those holding degrees, said they were in good shape.) Only 31 percent of those polled said that Obama’s agenda will increase opportunity for people like them to get ahead, while 34 percent said that it will decrease their opportunities; 29 percent said that it will have no effect. Those findings are an improvement from December, but are not much different from the results in earlier Heartland Monitor polls taken since spring 2010. Whites remain especially negative, with only 24 percent saying that Obama’s agenda will increase their opportunities. (College-educated whites were only slightly more favorable than those without degrees.) Since January 2010, no more than one-fourth of whites have ever said that Obama’s agenda will expand their opportunities.
Poll respondents also divided in a statistical tie when asked directly about the effects of Obama’s economic agenda: 45 percent said that his economic policies helped to “avoid an even worse economic crisis and are laying the foundation” for an eventual recovery, while 44 percent said that he had “run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses.” That’s the first time ever in the Heartland Monitor poll that more people have responded positively than negatively to that question (even if the difference was within the poll’s 3.1-percentage-point margin of error). But most whites remain unconvinced: Just 38 percent of them said that his agenda had positive effects. In this case, though, the verdict was much more positive among the college-educated whites generally in play for the president than among the noncollege whites who have persistently resisted him throughout his national career.
On the broadest question, the president retains a thin majority of hope. Asked about the overall impact of his agenda, 36 percent said that the country was “significantly worse off” because of his policies. Only 11 percent said that the nation was “significantly better off,” but another 45 percent said that his approach, while not yet producing major benefits, was moving the country in the right direction. Those numbers have remained remarkably stable through Obama’s presidency, and they suggest that through all the turbulence of the times, a majority of Americans has never entirely lost faith in him. Judging by these latest survey results, the economy is slowly giving the president more ammunition to argue that such faith was not misplaced.
Amrita Khalid contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the March 17, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.