April 23, 2009

Obama at 100 Days: Strong Job Approval, Even Higher Personal Ratings

Better Ratings for Foreign Policy than Domestic Issues

Overview

As he approaches the 100-day mark of his presidency, Barack Obama’s job approval ratings are higher than those of his most recent predecessors. However, the 44th president is even more distinguished by his strong personal popularity. Fully 73% of Americans – including as many as 46% of Republicans – hold a favorable view of Obama as a person. Fewer people held favorable impressions of George W. Bush (61%) and Bill Clinton (60%) early in their first years.

Obama’s job approval stands at 63%, while 26% disapprove of the way he is handling his job as president. His approval rating is up slightly from March (59%). Opinions about Obama’s performance remain highly partisan. Fully 93% of Democrats approve of the way Obama is handling his job as president, compared with just 30% of Republicans. Independents’ opinions fall in between, with 58% expressing positive views of his performance and 27% negative opinions.

Pew Research previously found a greater partisan gap in Obama’s early job approval ratings than in the ratings of past presidents. (See “Partisan Gap in Obama Job Approval Widest in Modern Era,” Commentary, April 2, 2009.) That continues to be the case. Obama’s approval rating among Republicans (30%) is about the same as Bill Clinton’s at a comparable point in his first year (25%), but Democratic approval – particularly strong approval – is much higher than it was for Clinton. Fully 79% of Democrats very strongly approve of Obama’s job performance; only about half as many Democrats (39%) expressed very strong approval for Clinton at this stage in 1993. Obama’s highly positive ratings from members of his own party also surpass Bush’s 71% very strong approval among Republicans in April 2001.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted April 14-21 among 1,507 adults interviewed in English and Spanish on landlines and cell phones, finds that Obama’s job ratings on several specific domestic issues are on balance positive, but also reflect the division of opinion about many of his policies. For example, 60% approve of his handling of the economy generally, while 33% disapprove. Fewer (50%) approve of his handling of the budget deficit, compared with 39% who disapprove.

Obama gets better ratings on foreign policy and terrorism – issues on which he trailed John McCain during last year’s presidential campaign – than on health care, tax policy or the budget deficit. The balance of opinion regarding Obama’s performance on foreign policy and terrorism is largely unchanged since February.

In conducting foreign policy, most Americans think Obama is striking the right balance in pushing American interests (57%) and in taking into account the interests and views of U.S. allies (56%). Fewer than a third (31%) believe that Obama is not pushing U.S. interests hard enough, and even fewer (19%) say he takes interests of allies too much into account. The public also is rendering a somewhat more positive view of Obama’s decision to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo than it did a few months ago; by 51% to 38%, more now approve of the decision to shut down Guantanamo. In February, the margin was narrower (46% to 39%).

In addition, the public broadly supports President Obama’s decision to permit federal funding for most embryonic stem cell research. More than six-in-ten (63%) approve of Obama’s stem cell research policy while 27% are opposed. Among religious groups, majorities of white mainline Protestants (66%) and white non-Hispanic Catholics (62%) approve of the policy. A narrow majority of white evangelical Protestants (52%) disapprove of Obama’s decision to fund most stem cell research.

The survey finds that about half of Americans (53%) say Obama’s economic policies have not had an effect so far, or that it is too early to tell, while 26% say his policies have made economic conditions better – up from 14% in March. The proportion saying his policies have made things worse is little changed; 17% say that now, compared with 15% in February.

Most Americans continue to reject the criticism that Obama is trying to tackle too many issues. Slightly more than a third (34%) say he is trying to address too many issues, while 56% believe he is handling things about right; this is largely unchanged from March. And by greater than two-to-one (63% to 27%), more believe that Obama “has a new approach to politics in Washington” than say his approach is “business as usual.” This was also the case in February (66% new approach, 25% business as usual).

The survey finds that Michelle Obama’s personal favorability ratings have increased since just before her husband’s inauguration in January. More than three-quarters of Americans (76%) say they have a favorable opinion of the first lady, up from 68% in January. Much of the change has come among Republicans, especially Republican women. About two-thirds of Republican women (67%) have a favorable impression of Michelle Obama, a gain of 21 points since January.

Dems Strongly Approve

At about this point in his first year, George W. Bush enjoyed much higher levels of strong support from members of his own party than Bill Clinton did eight years earlier. But Obama’s very strong approval ratings among Democrats (79%) are now even better than Bush’s ratings were among Republicans in April 2001 (71%).

At the same time, however, Republican disapproval of Obama (56%) is higher than Democratic disapproval of Bush at his 100-day mark (46%). In April 1993, 69% of Republicans disapproved of Clinton’s job performance.

Obama’s approval rating among independents is on par with those of Bush and Clinton. However, more independents approve of Obama’s performance very strongly (37%) than did so for either Bush (29%) or Clinton (10%). About a quarter of independents (27%) disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job, which is about the same as Bush’s disapproval mark (26%) and lower than Clinton’s (35%).

Obama’s Personal Popularity

In terms of his personal favorability, Obama’s draws almost universally positive marks among Democrats (96% favorable). In July 2001, Bush also was highly popular among members of his own party (91% favorable among Republicans), while Clinton drew somewhat less positive ratings among Democrats (86%) in May 1993.

However, Obama’s very favorable ratings among Democrats (68% very favorable) far surpass those for Bush among Republicans in the middle of his first year (45%). At a nearly comparable point in Clinton’s first year, just 35% of Democrats said they had a very favorable opinion of him.

While Obama garners relatively weak job approval ratings among Republicans, his personal favorability among members of the opposition party are higher than both Bush’s and Clinton’s marks. Currently, 46% of Republicans say they have a favorable opinion of Obama personally; in July 2001, 38% of Democrats expressed a positive opinion of Bush, and Clinton drew less favorable marks among Republicans in May 1993 (32%).

Similarly, Obama is now more personally popular among independents than the previous two presidents early in their first years. Curre
ntly, 72% of independents say they have a favorable impression of Obama, compared with 62% for Bush in July 2001 and 57% for Clinton in May 1993.

Obama Approval on Issues

Obama’s positive ratings for his handling of foreign policy (61%) and the economy (60%) are about the same as his overall job rating of 63%. Nearly as many people (57%) approve of his handling of the threat of terrorism. By comparison, about half of Americans approve of his handling of health care, tax policy and the budget deficit.

There are wide partisan gaps in views of Obama’s handling of each of these issues. Majorities of independents approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy (63%), the economy (56%), and terrorist threats (54%); half of independents approve of the way he is dealing with health care.

Independents are divided in views of Obama’s handling of tax policy and the budget deficit. While 45% of independents approve of his handling of tax policy, 40% disapprove. On the budget deficit, 45% of independents approve and 43% disapprove of the way he is dealing with the issue.

There also are substantial age and income differences in opinions about Obama’s overall job performance and his handling of specific issues. Americans under 30 years of age generally give Obama high ratings across the board – 70% approve of his overall job performance, while majorities approve of his handling of every specific issue.

But people 50 and older are more skeptical of the way Obama is handling his job and dealing with individual issues. The largest differences are in opinions about Obama’s handling of health care: 63% of those younger than 30 give him positive marks, compared with 55% of those 30 to 49, 42% of those ages 50 to 64, and 40% of those 65 and older.

Older Americans are divided in their opinions of Obama’s handling of the budget deficit, while majorities of those younger than 50 approve of his handling of the issue. That also is the case with opinions about Obama’s job performance on tax policy.

Affluent Are More Skeptical

Both in his overall approval rating and in his approval on several issues, Obama draws much greater support among poorer people – those with family incomes of less than $30,000 – than among relatively affluent people (with incomes of at least $75,000).

People with incomes of less than $30,000 approve of Obama’s overall job performance by greater than four-to-one (71% to 16%), while the margins are somewhat narrower among those with family incomes of between $30,000 and $75,000 (61% approve vs. 30% disapprove) and those with incomes of $75,000 or more (58% vs. 31%). The differences are more pronounced in opinions of Obama’s handling of the budget deficit, the economy and health care.

By roughly three-to-one (66% to 23%), people with lower incomes approve of the way Obama is handling the budget deficit. Those with family incomes of between $30,000 and $75,000 are evenly divided (46% approve vs. 45% disapprove). By a wide margin, those with higher incomes disapprove of Obama’s handling of the deficit (56% to 38%).

While a large majority (77%) of those with lower family incomes approve of the way Obama is dealing with the economy, smaller majorities of those with higher incomes agree. And on health care, 63% of those with family incomes of less than $30,000 give Obama positive ratings, compared with 48% of those with family incomes of between $30,000 and $75,000, and 41% of those making $75,000 or more.

More See Impact of Economic Policies

While a majority of Americans (53%) say that Obama’s economic policies have not had an impact on the economy so far, or that it is too soon to tell, that percentage is down sharply from March (68%). The percentage saying his policies have had a positive impact has risen since then from 14% to 26%, while the share saying Obama’s policies have had a negative effect have remained about the same (15% then, 17% today).

The biggest change in positive views of the impact of Obama’s economic policies has come among Democrats. Fully 45% of Democrats now believe Obama’s policies are affecting the economy positively, up from just 20% a little over a month ago. The increases in positive views among Republicans (up seven points) and independents (five points) have been much more modest.

Nearly four-in-ten (37%) of those with family incomes of less than $30,000 see Obama’s economic policies having a positive effect, up from 18% in March. Smaller shares of those with higher incomes believe Obama’s policies are making economic conditions better. But among those with family incomes of $75,000 or more, the proportion saying they have had a positive effect has tripled, from just 7% in March to 21% currently.

Listening More to Liberals?

Between January and March, there was an increase in the proportion of the public saying Obama was listening to liberal members of his party, rather than to the party’s moderates. Since then, views about whether Obama is listening more to the party’s liberals or moderates have remained fairly stable.

Currently, 40% say that Obama is listening more to liberal members of his party while 33% say he is listening more to Democratic moderates; 27% offered no response. As was the case in March, most Republicans believe that Obama listens more to liberals in his party (68%) than to moderates (20%). A plurality of Democrats (45%) believe Obama listens more to the party’s moderates while 25% say he listens more to the liberals. Like Republicans, Democrats’ perceptions about whether Obama listens more to the party’s liberals or moderates have changed little in the past month.

However, somewhat fewer independents believe that Obama listens more to liberals in his party than did so last month (39% now, 47% then). A third of independents say he listens more to the party’s moderates, which is largely unchanged since then (31%).

Similarly, there has been little change in perceptions of whether Obama has a new approach to politics in Washington or represents “business as usual.” More than six-in-ten (63%) believe Obama has a new approach to politics while 27% believe his approach is business as usual.

The belief that Obama has a new approach to politics is widely shared – even a narrow majority (51%) of Republicans express this view, as do 57% of independents and 80% of Democrats. The most notable change in these opinions since February has come among young people: 61% of those younger than 30 say Obama brings a new approach to politics, down from 73% in February.

Views of whether Obama has a new approach to politics are associated with opinions about whether he listens more to liberals or moderates in his party. Among those who say Obama has a new approach to politics, slightly more say he listens more to moderate Democrats than to liberal Democrats (by 39% to 33%). Among those who say he represents business as usual, 59% believe he listens more to liberal members of his party, compared with 25% who say he listens more to moderates.

Meeting Expectations

For the most part, Obama’s performance in office has met the public’s expectations: 61%
say he has done about as well as they expected, 25% say he has done better than expected while just 9% say he has done worse than they expected.

These opinions are comparable with views of Bush and Clinton at a similar point in their first years. However, fewer said that Clinton exceeded their expectations (12%) than said that about Bush (22%) or Obama (25%).

Similarly, 59% say Obama has been about as strong a leader as they expected; 25% say he has been a stronger leader than they expected while fewer (11%) say he has been a weaker leader than they expected. In April 2001, 59% also said that Bush was about as strong as leader as they expected.

Obama in a Word

As was the case in February, Intelligent is the single word that comes to mind most often when people think of Barack Obama. Out of 742 respondents asked to describe the president in one word, 30 said Intelligent, while 29 said Good.

Among those who describe Obama negatively, the words that come to mind have changed substantially. The number of Americans describing Obama as Socialist has risen from six last September to 13 in February to 20 today. Ten people think of Spender or Spending when they think of Obama – a concept that was absent or rare in previous surveys.

Views of Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama’s personal favorability has improved substantially since January. Today, 76% view her favorably, up eight points from an already high 68% in early January. The share saying they have a “very favorable” impression of her has also grown by eight points, from 28% to 36% today. By this measure, Obama is substantially more popular than her two immediate predecessors. In July 2001, 64% offered a favorable rating of Laura Bush, with 21% very favorable. And in May 1993, 60% felt favorably toward Hillary Clinton, with 19% very favorable.

Michelle Obama is viewed more positively today by Republicans – particularly Republican women. Today, 60% of Republicans offer a favorable assessment of Michelle Obama, up 14 points from 46% in January. Among Republican women, her favorable rating rose 21 points from 46% to 67%. As a result, there is a substantial gender gap between Republican men and women today that did not exist three months ago. In September 2008, during the presidential campaign, a plurality of Republicans – both men and women – expressed an unfavorable opinion of Michelle Obama.

Independents, too, view Mrs. Obama more favorably today (74%) than in January (62%). There remains a substantial gender gap between independent men (70% favorable) and women (80%).

With fully 90% of Democrats already feeling favorably toward Michelle Obama in January, there was less room for improvement. Today, 94% express a favorable impression of the first lady. In January, there was a nine-point gender gap between Democratic men and women; that has narrowed to just two points today. The share of Democrats with a very favorable opinion of Michelle Obama rose from 47% to 60% since January, and now includes 50% of Democratic men and 66% of Democratic women.

With Republicans expressing increasingly favorable views of Michelle Obama, impressions of her are now no more polarized than were early impressions of Laura Bush or Hillary Clinton. Currently, 94% of Democrats and 60% of Republicans offer a favorable impression of Michelle Obama.

First Lady In a Word

Many of the words people use to describe Michelle Obama are similar to peoples’ early impressions of Laura Bush. In fact, three words, Classy, Nice, and Intelligent are among the top four one-word descriptions for both Bush in 2001 and Obama today.

But there are also substantial differences in the two women’s images. Among the most often used words to describe Michelle Obama are Strong, Confident, Smart, Wife, and Wonderful, none of which were in the top-20 words used for Laura Bush eight years ago. By contrast, Mrs. Bush was often described as Ladylike, Quiet, Loyal, Dignified, and Pleasant, none of which make the list for Mrs. Obama. Notably, Michelle Obama is rarely described in ideological terms – only one person out of 765 interviewed describes her as Liberal. In July 2001, Conservative was the seventh most-frequently used word to describe Laura Bush, mentioned by 28 out of 1,212 respondents.

Biden’s Favorability Declines

While both the president and first lady enjoy higher favorability ratings than either of their predecessors did early in their first terms, the same cannot be said for the current vice president. Only about half of Americans (51%) say they have a favorable impression of Joe Biden – comparable to the 55% who felt favorably toward Al Gore in April 1993 and lower than the 58% favorability rating Dick Cheney received in July 2001.

Biden’s favorability has slipped 12 points since January, when 63% offered a favorable impression of him on the eve of his inauguration. Democratic favorability is down from 87% to 76% over the past three months, independent favorability is down from 58% to 46%. Republicans’ views of the vice president are largely unchanged (36% in January, 32% today). The 44-point partisan gap in Biden’s favorability rating (76% among Democrats vs. 32% among Republicans) is comparable to the partisan difference in feelings about Dick Cheney in 2001 (44% favorable among Democrats, 85% among Republicans) and Al Gore in 1993 (79% vs. 32%).

Cite this publication: “Obama at 100 Days: Strong Job Approval, Even Higher Personal Ratings.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (April 23, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/04/23/obama-at-100-days-strong-job-approval-even-higher-personal-ratings/, accessed on July 23, 2014.