Obama’s Ratings

Obama’s approval ratings may have bounced back, but most people still say the country is on the wrong track, which could hurt his 2012 chances.

President Obama speaks about fiscal policy at George Washington University on April 13, 2011 in Washington, DC. President Obama laid out his plan for deficit and debt reduction.
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
June 3, 2011, 2 a.m.

Like the eco­nomy, Pres­id­ent Obama con­tin­ues to inch to­ward re­cov­ery in the latest All­state/Na­tion­al Journ­al Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­vey. But the poll also un­der­scores the polit­ic­al risks he still faces.

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In the sur­vey, Obama’s job-ap­prov­al rat­ing reached 51 per­cent, with just 41 per­cent dis­ap­prov­al. That was the first time he has crossed the crit­ic­al 50 per­cent threshold in a Heart­land Mon­it­or poll since Septem­ber 2009. It was also the smal­lest dis­ap­prov­al rat­ing he has re­cor­ded since then.

Look­ing be­low those num­bers, the poll re­flects an ar­ray of pos­it­ive, if mod­er­ate, trends in the pres­id­ent’s fa­vor. His job-ap­prov­al rat­ing amonginde­pend­ents reached 54 per­cent, the first time it has ex­ceeded 50 per­cent in the Heart­land Mon­it­or since Ju­ly 2009. His ap­prov­al rat­ing among whites rose to 43 per­cent, the first time it has topped 40 per­cent since Septem­ber 2009.

That gain was re­l­at­ively broad-based, with ap­prov­al of Obama rising slightly among both col­lege-edu­cated whites and those without col­lege edu­ca­tions. He re­gistered his biggest im­prove­ment among one of the few groups in the white elect­or­ate that he car­ried in 2008: white wo­men who hold at least a four-year de­gree. His ap­prov­al rat­ing with them spiked to 56 per­cent, his best show­ing in two years. Also good news for Obama was his 65 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing among His­pan­ics, which ap­prox­im­ates the level of their vote for him in 2008; oth­er na­tion­al polls have shown him with lower rat­ings among that group.

Obama also con­tin­ued to close the in­tens­ity gap. At his low point in the Heart­land Mon­it­or last Au­gust, the share of Amer­ic­ans who strongly dis­ap­proved of his per­form­ance (39 per­cent) was about one-and-a-half times lar­ger than the share that strongly ap­proved (25 per­cent.) Now, he has climbed back to nearly even, with 27 per­cent strongly ap­prov­ing and 28 per­cent strongly dis­ap­prov­ing. (Among whites, those in­dic­at­ing strong dis­ap­prov­al still out­num­ber their strong-ap­prov­al coun­ter­parts by al­most 2-to-1.)

Most polit­ic­al sci­ent­ists agree that a pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ing is the best ba­ro­met­er of his reelec­tion chances, but Obama also en­joyed some im­prove­ment on a dir­ectly re­lated ques­tion. Forty-two per­cent of those polled said they would def­in­itely or prob­ably vote to reelect him, while 47 per­cent said they would def­in­itely or prob­ably vote for someone else. At Obama’s low point last Au­gust, only 39 per­cent said they in­ten­ded to vote for him, while 52 per­cent were in­clined to sup­port someone else.

One oth­er res­ult sug­ges­ted a slight lift for Obama. Al­though just 9 per­cent of those polled ex­pec­ted the eco­nomy to sig­ni­fic­antly im­prove over the next year, an­oth­er 51 per­cent said they an­ti­cip­ated that it will re­vive at least some­what. At the oth­er end of the spec­trum, 20 per­cent of re­spond­ents thought it would be some­what worse and 12 per­cent thought it would sig­ni­fic­antly de­cline. All of those num­bers are more pos­it­ive than last Au­gust, the last time the Heart­land Mon­it­or tested that sen­ti­ment.

But oth­er res­ults un­der­scored the head­winds still bat­ter­ing the pres­id­ent. Just 28 per­cent of adults said they be­lieve that the coun­try is on the right track, while 58 per­cent said it is on the wrong track — a find­ing vir­tu­ally un­changed over the past six months. In the new poll, whites were three times more likely to say the coun­try is on the wrong track; even a plur­al­ity of His­pan­ics said they think the coun­try is mov­ing in the wrong dir­ec­tion. Re­sponses to this ques­tion have also proven a power­ful pre­dict­or of vot­ing pref­er­ences in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions.

As­sess­ments of Obama’s agenda did not show the same im­prove­ment as the grades on his per­form­ance — which sug­gests the lat­ter meas­ure was heav­ily in­flu­enced by the suc­cess­ful raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. In­deed, in the sur­vey, the per­cent­age of adults who said Obama’s agenda would in­crease op­por­tun­ity for people like them dropped to 29 per­cent. That change is still with­in the mar­gin of er­ror of the March sur­vey’s 31 per­cent, but it is non­ethe­less the low­est num­ber the poll has re­cor­ded for Obama. An­oth­er 32 per­cent said Obama’s agenda would de­crease their op­por­tun­it­ies, while 31 per­cent said it would have no im­pact.

Ra­cial dif­fer­ences on this ques­tion are stark. Two-thirds of Afric­an-Amer­ic­ans said that Obama’s agenda will in­crease their op­por­tun­it­ies, while just 4 per­cent said they think it will di­min­ish their chances. Among His­pan­ics, the com­par­able num­bers are 41 per­cent pos­it­ive and 15 per­cent neg­at­ive. With whites, the pro­por­tions flip: Just 22 per­cent be­lieve Obama’s ap­proach will ex­pand their op­por­tun­it­ies; but fully 40 per­cent say it will di­min­ish their chances. Just as of­ten, work­ing-class whites were the most neg­at­ive.

Re­spond­ents were about evenly di­vided over wheth­er they place more trust in Obama (40 per­cent) or con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans (37 per­cent) to de­vel­op eco­nom­ic solu­tions. In the first Heart­land Mon­it­or poll in April 2009, Obama led the GOP by more than 2-to-1.

And Obama re­tains only a slim ad­vant­age on the sur­vey’s broad­est ques­tion, which asked re­spond­ents to as­sess the over­all im­pact of his policies. Thirty-five per­cent said the coun­try is sig­ni­fic­antly worse off be­cause of his policies; just 12 per­cent say the na­tion is sig­ni­fic­antly bet­ter off. The re­main­ing 46 per­cent say that the coun­try is not bet­ter off yet but is mov­ing in the right dir­ec­tion be­cause of Obama’s policies.

That equi­voc­al group — whose size has barely budged in any Heart­land Mon­it­or sur­vey since April 2010 — could hold the key to Obama’s fate. In the latest poll, about three-fourths of them said they ap­prove of Obama’s job per­form­ance, but only two-thirds of that group in­dic­ated that they now plan to vote for his reelec­tion. That slight fal­loff might not mat­ter much if events over the next 18 months sig­ni­fic­antly en­large either the group that sees un­equi­voc­al be­ne­fits or dam­age from Obama’s agenda. But if the coun­try re­mains as closely di­vided over the pres­id­ent as it is in this latest sur­vey, he’ll need to squeeze every last vote from those who still see in him a reas­on for hope — even if they don’t yet be­lieve their faith has been en­tirely re­war­ded.


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