Still Frozen

President Obama’s Ratings Are Consistently Low

President Obama takes questions from the media in the East Room of the White House on June 29, 2011.
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
Dec. 15, 2011, 10 a.m.

At­ti­tudes to­ward Pres­id­ent Obama re­main chilly in the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or poll. But the first hint of a spring breeze might be blow­ing to­ward the White House in the form of warm­ing ex­pect­a­tions about the eco­nomy’s tra­ject­ory.

Over­all, the poll con­tin­ued to re­cord equi­voc­al — and re­mark­ably stable — judg­ments about Obama’s re­cord, with the pres­id­ent con­front­ing a nar­row bal­ance of dis­ap­prov­al on his cur­rent per­form­ance and main­tain­ing a sliv­er of op­tim­ism about the dir­ec­tion he has set.

On the na­tion’s im­me­di­ate cir­cum­stances, the ver­dict in the sur­vey re­mains over­whelm­ingly neg­at­ive: 70 per­cent of those polled say that the United States is on the wrong track, while only 20 per­cent say that it is mov­ing in the right dir­ec­tion. That ties the Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­vey last Oc­to­ber for the most pess­im­ist­ic find­ing on that read­ing in any of the polls dat­ing back to April 2009.

As­sess­ments of Obama’s job per­form­ance are not as bleak, but they still tilt to­ward the neg­at­ive. In the new sur­vey, 44 per­cent of those polled say they ap­prove of his per­form­ance, while 49 per­cent dis­ap­prove; in Oc­to­ber, the split was a stat­ist­ic­ally identic­al 44 per­cent to 50 per­cent.

Tak­ing the longer tra­ject­ory un­der­scores the nar­row range in which at­ti­tudes about Obama are os­cil­lat­ing. In eight Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­veys since Janu­ary 2010, his ap­prov­al rat­ing has ex­ceeded 50 per­cent only last May (when it tipped to 51 per­cent), and it has not fallen be­low the 44 per­cent re­cor­ded in the two most re­cent sur­veys.

In the new poll, just 35 per­cent of whites say they ap­prove of Obama’s per­form­ance. Among whites, his ap­prov­al rat­ing since Janu­ary 2010 has ex­ceeded 40 per­cent only once, also in that May 2011 sur­vey.

Obama’s num­bers among whites without a col­lege edu­ca­tion re­main bleak: Less than one-third of them ap­prove of his per­form­ance. He has reached 40 per­cent ap­prov­al with this group only once (in that same May 2011 poll) since Janu­ary 2010. Per­haps more wor­ri­some for the White House, Obama’s num­bers re­main de­pressed among col­lege-edu­cated white voters, who have gen­er­ally been warm­er to­ward him. Just 39 per­cent of them say they ap­prove. That joins Oc­to­ber as only the second time the pres­id­ent’s stand­ing with that group has fallen be­low 40 per­cent. Even among col­lege-edu­cated white wo­men, who gave Obama 52 per­cent of their votes in 2008, his ap­prov­al rat­ing has skid­ded to 42 per­cent.

The most re­cent two sur­veys also place Obama at a nadir with in­de­pend­ents: 38 per­cent of them in the new poll ap­prove of his per­form­ance (com­pared with 35 per­cent in Oc­to­ber); each of those mark the first time in the Heart­land Mon­it­or polling that few­er than 40 per­cent of in­de­pend­ents have ap­proved.

Oth­er res­ults also bend against the pres­id­ent. Only 28 per­cent said they ex­pect his policies to in­crease op­por­tun­ity for them to get ahead; 37 per­cent say that his agenda will di­min­ish their op­por­tun­it­ies. That’s the biggest tilt to­ward the neg­at­ive that the poll has ever re­cor­ded on this ques­tion.

An in­cum­bent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing his­tor­ic­ally has been the most re­veal­ing gauge of his reelec­tion pro­spects. The num­bers are even gloom­i­er for Obama on a reelec­tion ques­tion. When asked if they in­tend to vote for Obama, 39 per­cent said they were now in­clined to, while 54 per­cent said they will def­in­itely or prob­ably back someone else. That res­ult is es­sen­tially un­changed since Oc­to­ber.

Four oth­er find­ings, though, of­fer some­what bet­ter news for the pres­id­ent. Des­pite the doubts about Obama’s per­form­ance, Amer­ic­ans still split evenly when asked wheth­er they trust him or con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans to de­vel­op solu­tions to the na­tion’s eco­nom­ic prob­lems (that fig­ure, however, rep­res­ents a de­cline for Obama, who has gen­er­ally run nar­rowly ahead of the GOP on this ques­tion).

More im­port­ant, Amer­ic­ans are some­what op­tim­ist­ic when asked about the im­pact of Obama’s policies. Fully 38 per­cent say that the United States is “sig­ni­fic­antly worse off be­cause of the policies” he has pur­sued, while a mere 11 per­cent say that the na­tion is “sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter off.” But an­oth­er 43 per­cent say that while the coun­try is not yet sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter off be­cause of his agenda, it is “be­gin­ning to move in the right dir­ec­tion.” All of those num­bers have re­mained re­mark­ably stable since the sum­mer of 2010.

Also good news for Obama: While Mitt Rom­ney and Newt Gin­grich, the two GOP front-run­ners, are ar­guing about who is more com­mit­ted to pro­pos­als to con­vert Medi­care in­to a vouch­er or premi­um-sup­port sys­tem, the sur­vey finds pre­pon­der­ant pub­lic res­ist­ance to the idea.

Al­though oth­er polls have found vary­ing levels of sup­port de­pend­ing on how the idea is worded, fully 62 per­cent of those sur­veyed in the Heart­land Mon­it­or said they would prefer to “con­tin­ue the cur­rent sys­tem where Medi­care pays doc­tors and hos­pit­als dir­ectly “¦ even if it means that Medi­care might have to cut the amount it pays doc­tors, po­ten­tially caus­ing some doc­tors to lim­it the num­ber of Medi­care pa­tients they see.” Just 17 per­cent say they sup­port plans to “con­vert Medi­care in­to a pro­gram that provides seni­ors with a fixed sum of money to pur­chase their own private in­sur­ance.”

The most en­cour­aging news for Obama in the gen­er­ally sober­ing sur­vey, however, is the hint of op­tim­ism about bet­ter times ahead. Com­pared with Oc­to­ber, the share of Amer­ic­ans who say they are in ex­cel­lent or good fin­an­cial shape re­mains stuck at about two-fifths. However, the share who be­lieve the eco­nomy will im­prove over the next 12 months has moved up­ward from 50 per­cent to 56 per­cent, and the share who ex­pect it to de­cline fur­ther has fallen no­tice­ably from 46 per­cent to 36 per­cent.

That’s hardly the stuff of clouds part­ing, but amid the most stub­born eco­nom­ic down­turn since the De­pres­sion, the White House un­doubtedly will take sil­ver lin­ings where it can find them.


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