Heartland Monitor Poll

Obama’s Approval Rating Rebounds Despite Divisions Over Economic Policies

Americans remain split almost evenly on the impact of the president’s economy policies and overall job performance.

President Barack Obama
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
March 17, 2015, 8:46 a.m.

Lif­ted by im­prov­ing eco­nom­ic ex­pect­a­tions, Pres­id­ent Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing in the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll has re­boun­ded to its highest level in nearly two years. But even with that re­cov­ery, Amer­ic­ans re­main split al­most evenly on both the im­pact of his eco­nom­ic policies and his over­all per­form­ance, the sur­vey found.

These polit­ic­al as­sess­ments closely track the trend of mod­est im­prove­ment tempered by con­tin­ued un­ease that the sur­vey found in at­ti­tudes about the eco­nomy. As we re­por­ted yes­ter­day, while Amer­ic­ans’ as­sess­ments of their own per­son­al fin­an­cial situ­ations and the na­tion­al eco­nomy have clearly brightened, un­ease about Amer­ica’s eco­nom­ic per­form­ance—par­tic­u­larly in gen­er­at­ing rising liv­ing stand­ards—re­mains wide­spread.

The poll re­turned a sim­il­ar ver­dict of re­strained im­prove­ment on many meas­ures. On the broad­est ques­tion, the share of adults who de­scribed the coun­try as “headed in the right dir­ec­tion” reached its highest level in the poll since im­me­di­ately after Obama’s reelec­tion in Novem­ber 2012. But even so, just 33 per­cent said the coun­try is head­ing in the right dir­ec­tion, while 54 per­cent de­scribed it as “ser­i­ously off on the wrong track.”

Sim­il­arly, in the new sur­vey, 46 per­cent of adults said they ap­proved of Obama’s per­form­ance as pres­id­ent while 48 per­cent dis­ap­proved. That was a marked im­prove­ment from the pre­vi­ous poll in Oc­to­ber 2014, when only 41 per­cent gave him pos­it­ive marks. The new sur­vey placed Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing at its highest level since June 2013 (when it reached 48 per­cent).

Im­prov­ing eco­nom­ic ex­pect­a­tions clearly are be­ne­fit­ing Obama. Among the 44 per­cent of adults who said they ex­pec­ted their fin­an­cial situ­ation to im­prove over the next year, 56 per­cent ap­proved of his per­form­ance while 38 per­cent dis­ap­proved. The 46 per­cent who ex­pect their fin­an­cial situ­ation to re­main un­changed tilted against him: 40 per­cent ap­proved and 54 per­cent dis­ap­proved. And with the 8 per­cent who thought their situ­ation would de­teri­or­ate, just 24 per­cent ap­proved, while 68 per­cent dis­ap­proved.

Those stark di­vi­sions sug­gest that Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing could rise at least some­what fur­ther if sus­tained growth con­tin­ues to in­crease the share of Amer­ic­ans up­beat about their eco­nom­ic fu­ture.

Com­pared with last Oc­to­ber, the new sur­vey found Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing jump­ing 7 per­cent­age points among both Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents, as well as 8 points among minor­it­ies (reach­ing 66 per­cent with them, his best show­ing since Septem­ber 2013.) Mark Buck, a Nat­ive-Amer­ic­an in­de­pend­ent who op­er­ates an ex­cav­at­ing busi­ness near Toledo, Ohio, gave the pres­id­ent good marks not only on the eco­nomy—his busi­ness, Buck says, “is really start­ing to take off pretty well”—but also the pas­sage of his health re­form law. “Help­ing people out with health care is a big thing, be­cause people have struggled, like my­self,” says Buck. After a con­struc­tion ac­ci­dent in 2004, he con­tin­ued, “For 10 years, nobody would sell me in­sur­ance. For­tu­nately, now I can get that and fi­nally get my checkups “… without be­ing so con­cerned about spend­ing all of that money out of pock­et to keep up with my health.”

Obama’s gains with whites were much more muted: He stood at 37 per­cent with them in the new sur­vey, up only 3 per­cent­age points since last fall. His ap­prov­al rat­ing among whites has ex­ceeded 41 per­cent in the Heart­land poll only twice since 2009.

Among whites, Obama notched his largest gains among the group tra­di­tion­ally most re­cept­ive to Demo­crats: white wo­men hold­ing at least a four-year col­lege de­gree. His ap­prov­al rat­ing among those up­scale wo­men spiked to 53 per­cent, up from 45 per­cent last fall; since 2010, Obama has ranked high­er with col­lege white wo­men only once. Cindy Har­ris­on, who works for the fed­er­al courts in St. Louis, is one of those wo­men mostly pos­it­ive on the pres­id­ent. “I re­mem­ber be­fore he took of­fice, when things were go­ing in the tank and Re­pub­lic­ans wer­en’t do­ing any­thing,” she says. “He came in and took the bull by the horns.” These col­lege white wo­men, whose sup­port for Obama de­clined in 2012, could be crit­ic­al to Demo­crat­ic hopes of suc­ceed­ing him in 2016: Both na­tion­al and state polls have con­sist­ently found Hil­lary Clin­ton im­prov­ing on Obama’s per­form­ance with this stead­ily grow­ing group in early tests against pos­sible GOP nom­in­ees.

With oth­er whites, Obama’s situ­ation re­mains much more pre­cari­ous. He drew pos­it­ive ap­prov­al rat­ings from just 26 per­cent of non­col­lege white men, 33 per­cent of col­lege-edu­cated white men, and 34 per­cent of white wo­men without a col­lege de­gree. “I haven’t seen one good ac­tion out of the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” says Geof­frey, a white man­u­fac­tur­ing work­er from Plain­field, Con­necti­c­ut, who asked to with­hold his last name. John, a white soft­ware en­gin­eer from Man­hat­tan, who also asked to with­hold his last name, was even more dis­missive: “I think he’s done a ter­rible job. “… Obama­care makes things more ex­pens­ive, and I think in the long run, the goal of the gov­ern­ment is to make health care too ex­pens­ive, to make it fail, and re­quire the gov­ern­ment to come in and com­pletely so­cial­ize it.”

For all of Obama’s dif­fi­culties among the non­col­lege white men and col­lege white men, he won reelec­tion fairly com­fort­ably in 2012 des­pite car­ry­ing few­er than 2-in-5 among each group. And by con­trast to his struggles on those fronts, the poll found that Obama has now re­gained ma­jor­ity ap­prov­al from each of the three pil­lars of the mod­ern Demo­crat­ic elect­or­al co­ali­tion: young adults ages 18-29 (52 per­cent), col­lege white wo­men (53 per­cent), and minor­it­ies (66 per­cent). “I think he’s do­ing pretty good, es­pe­cially with health care re­form and cre­at­ing op­por­tun­it­ies to go back to col­lege,” says Chavez Eaton, a 24-year-old Afric­an-Amer­ic­an from Felton, Delaware, who is plan­ning to re­turn to col­lege. “Con­gress isn’t do­ing a good job, but Obama does the best he can with what he has.”

Sim­il­ar di­vi­sions of race and class ap­peared on a ques­tion the Heart­land Mon­it­or has asked since Septem­ber 2009, with slightly dif­fer­ent word­ing over time, about the im­pact of Obama’s eco­nom­ic policies. Over­all, in the new sur­vey, 45 per­cent of adults said Obama’s policies have “run up a re­cord fed­er­al de­fi­cit while fail­ing to sig­ni­fic­antly im­prove the eco­nomy,” while 42 per­cent said his policies have helped “to avoid an even worse eco­nom­ic crisis and are fuel­ing eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery.” That nar­rowly neg­at­ive tilt was the best show­ing for Obama on that ques­tion since Novem­ber 2012.

Stark ra­cial and class dif­fer­ences rippled through these re­ac­tions too. While 56 per­cent of non­whites said Obama’s policies had helped more than they hurt, just 29 per­cent of non­col­lege white men, and 34 per­cent of both non­col­lege white wo­men and col­lege-edu­cated white men agreed. Among whites, only the col­lege-plus wo­men gave the pres­id­ent mostly pos­it­ive marks, with 52 per­cent say­ing his policies had mostly im­proved con­di­tions. Just over two-fifths of in­de­pend­ents said Obama’s policies had done more harm than good—a mod­est res­ult that non­ethe­less marks a clear gain from the most re­cent times the sur­vey asked the ques­tion. Young adults split on this ques­tion ex­actly in half at 42 per­cent each.

The sur­vey also found ad­vances for Obama on the re­lated ques­tion of how his policies had af­fected in­di­vidu­als’ per­son­al fin­an­cial pro­spects. In the sur­vey, 32 per­cent of adults said his policies would in­crease “op­por­tun­ity for people like you to get ahead”; an equal 32 per­cent said his ap­proach would “de­crease op­por­tun­ity for people like you to get ahead”; and 31 per­cent said Obama’s plans would have no im­pact.

That hardly qual­i­fies as a ringing en­dorse­ment, but it does rep­res­ent tan­gible pro­gress for Obama: In Novem­ber 2013, the share of adults who said their op­por­tun­it­ies would be re­duced by his policies (47 per­cent) was more than double the por­tion who thought they would be in­creased (23 per­cent). The ra­cial con­trast on this ques­tion re­mains sharp too: While minor­it­ies are far more likely to be­lieve Obama’s policies will in­crease (49 per­cent) rather than de­crease (20 per­cent) their eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­it­ies, whites are more likely to see Obama lim­it­ing (38 per­cent) than ex­pand­ing (25 per­cent) their pro­spects. Non­col­lege white men and wo­men, not sur­pris­ingly, are es­pe­cially neg­at­ive, and though Obama re­cor­ded some im­prove­ment among well-edu­cated white men, they re­main mostly neg­at­ive too. By con­trast, for the first time since May 2011, more col­lege-plus white wo­men in the new poll say they be­lieve Obama’s policies will im­prove rather than di­min­ish their op­por­tun­it­ies. Gen­er­a­tion­ally, Obama now runs even or nar­rowly ahead on this ques­tion among all age groups in their work­ing years, es­pe­cially those un­der 40; his num­bers are sup­pressed by an ex­tremely neg­at­ive ver­dict among those over 65.

Asked “to the ex­tent the eco­nomy has im­proved in re­cent months,” who should get cred­it for the up­tick, 37 per­cent picked Obama, 27 per­cent con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, 23 per­cent neither, and 4 per­cent both; 3 per­cent said the eco­nomy has not im­proved. The same con­trasts held on this ques­tion: Minor­it­ies were twice as likely to cred­it Obama as con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans, while whites split about evenly (31 per­cent for Obama, 29 per­cent for the GOP). Non­col­lege white men and wo­men bent to­ward the GOP, but on this ques­tion the col­lege-edu­cated white men (some­what sur­pris­ingly) joined their fe­male coun­ter­parts in lean­ing more to­ward Obama. Still, con­tinu­ing the poll’s clear pat­tern, those well-edu­cated wo­men were much more likely to cred­it Obama than any oth­er group of whites.

The coun­try re­mains closely di­vided as well on the broad­er philo­soph­ic­al ques­tion of the gov­ern­ment’s role in the eco­nomy, which is cer­tain to provide a cent­ral di­vide in the 2016 pres­id­en­tial race. In the poll, 35 per­cent of adults en­dorsed the Ron­ald Re­agan-like no­tion that “in the cur­rent eco­nom­ic en­vir­on­ment, gov­ern­ment is not the solu­tion to our eco­nom­ic prob­lems; gov­ern­ment is the prob­lem.”

An­oth­er 27 per­cent said that in the cur­rent cli­mate “the gov­ern­ment must play an act­ive role in reg­u­lat­ing the mar­ket­place and en­sur­ing that the eco­nomy be­ne­fits people like me.” The re­main­ing 34 per­cent made up the con­flic­ted swing group: they agreed that they “would like to see gov­ern­ment play an act­ive role in the eco­nomy to en­sure it be­ne­fits people like me, but I am not sure that I can trust gov­ern­ment to do this ef­fect­ively.” Minor­it­ies and col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men were less likely than the oth­er groups of whites to en­dorse the Re­agan­ite sen­ti­ment and to lean to­ward the op­tions that re­flec­ted at least re­ceptiv­ity to gov­ern­ment act­iv­ism. Young adults un­der 30 were also con­sid­er­ably less likely than those older to en­dorse the idea that gov­ern­ment is the prob­lem.

The mod­estly rising tide of eco­nom­ic op­tim­ism has lif­ted even as­sess­ments of Con­gress, al­though they re­main dis­mal: 18 per­cent said they ap­prove of Con­gress’s per­form­ance, while 71 per­cent dis­ap­prove. Still, that’s the highest ap­prov­al rat­ing for Con­gress since Novem­ber 2012. Al­though the GOP now con­trols both cham­bers, Con­gress faces dis­ap­prov­al rat­ings of about 7-in-10 or more among Demo­crats, in­de­pend­ents, and even Re­pub­lic­ans.

Amer­ic­ans rate their own mem­ber of Con­gress slightly more pos­it­ively: 36 per­cent said they ap­prove of their own rep­res­ent­at­ive, while 42 per­cent dis­ap­prove. This ques­tion pro­vokes a great­er par­tis­an di­vide: While plur­al­it­ies of Demo­crats and in­de­pend­ents say they dis­ap­prove of their own rep­res­ent­at­ive, a slight plur­al­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans say they ap­prove.

The latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or Poll is the 22nd in a series ex­amin­ing how Amer­ic­ans are ex­per­i­en­cing the chan­ging eco­nomy. This poll, which ex­plored how Amer­ic­ans rate con­di­tions in their com­munit­ies and wheth­er they prefer loc­al or na­tion­al in­sti­tu­tions to take the lead in re­spond­ing to the coun­try’s chal­lenges, sur­veyed 1,000 adults by land­line and cell phones from Feb­ru­ary 18 through 22, 2015. The sur­vey has a mar­gin of er­ror of plus or minus 3.1 per­cent­age points. The sur­vey was su­per­vised by Ed Re­illy and Jeremy Ruch of FTI Con­sult­ing’s Stra­tegic Com­mu­nic­a­tions prac­tice.

Janie Boschma contributed to this article.
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