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No Thaw Yet For Obama

Attitudes toward the President and his policies have barely budged since January.

HEARTLAND MONITOR POLLPoll ResultsComplete Topline Results For Allstate/National Journal Poll [PDF]

Young People Seek Shelter From The StormAttitudes toward the President and his policies have barely budged since January. [more...]

SPECIAL REPORTThe Next EconomyThe first part of National Journal and The Atlantic's series on the next economy looks at the generation that will be shaped most by changes under way: those born between 1981 and 2002. [more...]

Analysts increasingly see signs of a spring thaw in the economy. But for now at least, the public's assessments of President Obama's management of the economy and his overall performance remain essentially frozen in place.

That's a central finding of the latest quarterly Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey. The poll finds the country divided almost evenly on Obama's job performance, his impact on the economy, the value of the health care plan he signed into law this winter, and whether a conservative or liberal agenda is more likely to produce long-term prosperity. Those numbers have barely budged since the previous Heartland Monitor survey in January.


The poll, supervised by Ed Reilly and Brent McGoldrick of FD, a communications strategy consulting firm, questioned 1,200 adults ages 18 or older from April 22 through 26. The results have a margin of error of +/-2.8 percentage points.

The most ominous number for Obama is that only 39 percent of those polled said they would be inclined to vote for him if the 2012 election were held today; 50 percent would vote for someone else. That's identical to the January result. In the new survey, the share of those who said they will definitely vote for someone else (37 percent) exceeded the number who said they definitely intend to support Obama (25 percent).

Most political scientists, however, say that a president's job-approval rating is the most telling measure of his re-election prospects. On that front, Obama's standing underscores both the intensity of the headwinds buffeting him and the continued strength of his base. In the survey, 48 percent said they approve of the president's job performance, while 46 percent disapprove. That mirrors the January result, in which 47 percent approved and 45 percent disapproved.


In the new poll, Obama's support remains strongest among minority voters (with 72 percent approval). He also continues to post relatively high numbers among two other pillars of his 2008 coalition: young people (55 percent approval) and college-educated white women (45 percent), although he has lost ground with each of these groups since last year.

Obama's weakest approval numbers are among white women with less than a college education (37 percent); college-educated white men (36 percent); and white men without college degrees (35 percent). Except for some slippage among young people, Obama's ratings haven't changed much among any of these groups since January. On the other hand, his standing with each of these key segments lags his performance in the 2008 exit polls.

Since January, Obama's approval rating has risen among Democrats (to a solid 85 percent); skidded further among Republicans (to a minuscule 12 percent); and drifted slightly downward among independents (to 41 percent), a change within the margin of error. Reaction to the health care law probably helps explain that polarizing trend: 88 percent of those who consider the law a good thing approve of Obama's performance, while 87 percent of those who don't give him poor grades.

Attitudes toward Obama are casting a long shadow over the approaching midterm election. Overall, 39 percent of those surveyed said they intend to vote for Democratic candidates in November, while 35 percent said they would back Republicans. (The rest were undecided or said they like neither party.) But 70 percent of those who approve of Obama plan to support Democrats, while 64 percent of those who disapprove prefer the GOP.


The verdict on the president's major domestic initiatives remains closely divided, the survey found. In all, 44 percent said that the health care law will be good for the country, but 45 percent disagree. The racial gap on this question is enormous: Two-thirds of minority respondents consider the plan positive; only one-third of whites agree. By 49 percent to 37 percent, independents return a negative judgment on the law.

The country split about as closely on the effect of Obama's economic agenda. Forty-two percent said that his policies have helped to "avoid an even worse economic crisis and are laying the foundation for our eventual economic recovery." But 46 percent said that Obama's approach has "run up a record federal deficit while failing to end the recession or slow the record pace of job losses."

Those findings are virtually identical to January's and have changed little since September (tilting slightly away from Obama over that period). On this question, the nation divides along familiar lines: Just one-third of noncollege whites and 35 percent of college-educated white men think that Obama averted a worse collapse. But college-educated white women split on the question evenly, and by nearly 2-to-1 minorities render a positive verdict on his actions. Still, it is ominous for Obama that only 38 percent of independents think that he improved the nation's economic situation, while 52 percent say he compounded debt without much to show for it.

Similar patterns, but with more perceptible movement away from Obama since January, are evident on another central question. This one asked respondents to assess the impact on the nation of Obama's overall agenda. Just 11 percent said that the country is already "significantly better off" because of his policies; another 46 percent said that although the nation isn't "better off yet," it is "beginning to move in the right direction" because of Obama's initiatives. In January, the comparable numbers were 13 percent better off and 52 percent moving in the right direction. The ranks of skeptics are growing: 37 percent said that the country is "significantly worse off" because of the president's policies. That's up from 31 percent in January.

The health care law weighs heavily on assessments of Obama's presidency: Fully three-fourths of those who dislike the plan said they think that the country is significantly worse off because of his policies. By comparison, the law's supporters hedge their bets. They are much more likely to say that Obama is moving the country in the right direction (72 percent) than to argue that he has already produced significant results (22 percent).

Other measures also show little recent change. Fifty-four percent of those polled said that the country is on the wrong track (compared with 55 percent in January). Thirty-four percent said that Obama's agenda will increase opportunities for people like them, while 36 percent said that it will hurt their chances, figures almost unchanged since January. (This question opens another racial chasm: Just one-fourth of whites believe that his policies will expand their opportunities, compared with nearly three-fifths of minorities.) Forty-eight percent believe that the country has a better shot at prosperity with a Republican-leaning agenda of "cutting taxes, reducing regulation ... and helping people start their own businesses," while 46 percent prefer an Obama-esque approach of "investment in education and training, infrastructure projects like roads, and scientific research into areas like alternative energy." (Those are the same results as in January.) On the other hand, by 39 percent to 32 percent, those polled trust Obama more than congressional Republicans to "develop solutions to the country's economic challenges."

On the broadest question about government's role in the economy, opinion remains largely stable as well. Exactly one-third of those surveyed agreed with the Ronald Reagan-like assertion that "government is not the solution to our economic problems; government is the problem." Another 32 percent seconded the more traditionally Democratic belief that "the government must play an active role in regulating the marketplace and ensuring that the economy benefits people like me." The decisive remaining 28 percent said they "would like to see government play an active role in the economy ... but I am not sure that I can trust government to do this effectively." These numbers show a small tilt--within the margin of error--toward activism since January.

Taken together, these findings depict a nation that is once again closely and rigidly divided between the parties. That sharply polarized and intractable division defined the political landscape through most of the past two decades before the decline in President George W. Bush's support during his second term allowed Democrats to establish a clear advantage. Now, that advantage has almost evaporated, although it is not yet clear whether a troubled economy or a more lasting ideological backlash against Obama's ambitious agenda, is primarily responsible.

This article appears in the May 8, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.

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