September 17, 2009

Obama Approval Ratings Steady, Personal Image Remains Positive

Most Continue to Say He Brings 'New Approach' to Politics

Overview

Following his nationally televised address to Congress, opinion of President Barack Obama has taken a more favorable turn. Obama’s job approval ratings, which had declined in the summer, have remained essentially unchanged over the past month. And the balance of opinion regarding the health care reform proposals before Congress has become a bit more positive than it was in late August, though the public is about evenly divided over those proposals.

Obama’s job approval rating, currently 55%, has changed little since late July. Nonetheless, it remains well below his rating at the 100-day mark of his presidency (63%). The president’s personal image also has slipped since the early weeks of his administration, but continues to be very strong.

Currently, 83% say Obama is a good communicator, while 78% say he is warm and friendly. Obama’s ratings on these and other personal dimensions, while overwhelmingly positive, have declined somewhat since February. In most cases, the falloff in positive views mirrors the decline in his job approval rating – from 64% in February to 55% today.

However, Obama has seen double-digit declines in positive views on several traits, including whether he cares about people like them (13 points), is a strong leader (12 points), trustworthy (12 points) and able to get things done (12 points). In February, 70% said Obama was able to get things done while just 15% said he was not. The margin is much closer in the current survey (58% to 31%).

Still, far more people now say Obama is able to get things done than said that about former President Clinton at a comparable point in his first year in office. In August 1993, when Clinton’s job approval stood at 39%, just 36% said he was able to get things done while 54% said he was not.

Obama’s 58% positive rating on his ability to get things done is below former President Bush’s mark of 68% in September 2003; at the time, Bush’s overall approval rating was the same as Obama’s today (55%). Yet Obama’s trustworthy rating is similar to Bush’s in September 2003, and somewhat more people see Obama as well-informed (70%) than said that about Bush then (59%).

Opinions about Obama’s ideology have changed modestly since February. Currently, 44% say Obama is liberal, 36% say he is middle of the road and 9% say he is conservative. In February, somewhat fewer said Obama was liberal (38%), while 40% said he was middle of the road and 13% viewed him as conservative.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Sept. 10-15 among 1,006 adults reached on landlines and cell phones, also finds that nearly eight months into Obama’s presidency most Americans continue to say he has brought a new approach to politics in Washington.

Currently, 63% say that Obama has a new approach to politics in Washington while 30% say his approach is “business as usual.” That is nearly identical to opinion in April and largely unchanged from February. The view that Obama has a new approach to politics is widely shared among Democrats (76%) and independents (62%), but half of Republicans (50%) also express this opinion.

The survey finds that the number of Americans attuned to the health care debate has grown steadily since July. Six-in-ten now say they are hearing a lot about the health care proposals in Congress, up from 53% in August and 41% in July.

The public is now evenly divided over the health care proposals being discussed in Congress: 42% generally favor them while 44% are generally opposed. In both July and August, there was more opposition than support for the proposals; in August, 39% said they generally favored the proposals while 46% were opposed.

There is little difference in opinion between those who are most attentive to the health care debate and those who are less attentive; both groups are evenly divided. This stands in contrast to surveys in July and August, when those who heard a lot about the proposals opposed them by wide margins.

Republicans Now Highly Critical of Obama’s Leadership

After months of partisan battles and a summer of intense political rhetoric, Republicans have become much more critical of key Obama leadership traits than they were shortly after he took office. The changes among independents and Democrats have been far less pronounced; majorities of independents – and overwhelming proportions of Democrats – continue to view Obama positively on all of the personal traits mentioned.

Currently, just 36% of Republicans say Obama is a strong leader, while 57% say he is not. That is a stark reversal from February, when 56% said he was a strong leader and 31% said he was not. The shift among Republicans in views of Obama’s trustworthiness is similar. Today, 61% say he is not trustworthy, up 26 percentage points from 35% in February. A third of Republicans now view him as trustworthy (33%), down from half (51%) seven months ago.

In February, nearly two-thirds of Republicans said they thought of Obama as someone who cared about people like them (65%), while 28% said he did not. Today, more say he does not empathize with people like them (51%) than say he does (40%). The drop in the percentage of Republicans saying Obama cares about people like them is 25 points. And far fewer Republicans than in February now say that Obama is able to get things done (48% then, 35% today).

Impressions of Obama among independents also have slipped, but in many cases the declines have not been as great as among Republicans. About six-in-ten independents now say Obama is able to get things done (57%), down from 71% in February; 34% say he is not able to get things done, up from just 12% then. There also have been substantial increases in the proportions of independents who say Obama is not a strong leader (from 12% to 29%) and not trustworthy (from 15% to 31%), though solid majorities continue to rate Obama positively on both traits.

In contrast to the Republicans, there has been only a modest decline in the proportion of independents who describe Obama as someone who cares about people like them. Currently, 71% of independents say Obama cares about people like them, down from 80% in February.

Democrats, meanwhile, remain largely confident in Obama’s abilities and skills. Nine-in-ten say he is a strong leader, little changed from the 93% that said the same in February. A similar share (91%) says he cares about people like them, not much different from the 95% that agreed with that statement earlier in the year. And there has been no significant shift in the percentage that sees him as trustworthy: 95% did so in February and 91% say they do today.

Perceptions of Obama’s Ideology

Partisan views of Obama’s political ideology have shifted only slightly since February, though independents see the president as more liberal than they did then. Close to half (47%) of independents now say Obama is liberal, compared with 37% earlier in the year. Another 38% describe Obama as middle of the road, down from 47%. Just as in February, 10% of independents say Obama is conservative.

Republicans’ views of Obama’s ideology have changed little since early this year: 63% see Obama as a liberal. Another 23% see him as middle of the road, the same percentage as in February. Just 5% say he is conservative, down from 12% in the earlier survey. Among Democrats, there has been virtually no change in perceptions: 33% see him as liberal, 45% see him as middle of the road and 11% see him as conservative.

Comparisons with Bush, Clinton

For the most part, Obama’s ratings on personal traits compare favorably with those of his most recent predecessors. In September 2003, 68% said Bush was a strong leader and 62% viewed him as trustworthy; about the same percentages currently give Obama positive ratings on those traits (65% strong leader, 64% trustworthy). Somewhat more said Bush was able to get things done (68%) than say that about Obama today (58%). Yet compared with Obama, fewer saw Bush as well-informed or said he cared about people like them.

Bush’s ratings on these and other personal traits declined subsequently along with his overall job approval. In August 2006, fewer than half rated Bush positively on each of five personal characteristics asked about in that survey.

Clinton’s ratings for effectiveness and other traits fluctuated during the first two years of his presidency. In December 1993, following the passage of NAFTA and other accomplishments, fully 63% said he was able to get things done, up from just 36% four months earlier. But in July 1994, less than a year later, just 40% said he was able to get things done, and his ratings for trustworthiness as well as for being well-organized and well-informed also declined markedly.

Public Divided on Health Care Legislation

Following President Obama’s speech on health care reform, the public is narrowly split over the legislative proposals under discussion by Congress.

Nearly as many (42%) favor the proposals as oppose them (44%). In July and August, more Americans opposed the health care legislation than supported it (July: 38% favor/44% oppose; August: 39% favor/46% oppose).

Opinions about health care reform continue to be highly partisan, and there have been only slight changes since August. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of Republicans say they oppose the legislation, while 68% of Democrats support the proposals. Independents, on balance, remain skeptical. A narrow majority of independents (51%) oppose the legislation, while 37% favor the proposals.

The percentage of Democrats who say they support the proposals very strongly has risen from 44% in August to 52% now. A higher proportion of Republicans (63%) say they oppose the health care legislation very strongly, but there has been no increase in the intensity of GOP opposition since August.

Most Aware Now Evenly Divided

Fully 60% of the public now says it is hearing a lot about the debate in Congress to overhaul the health care system. That is up from 53% last month and just 41% in July.

In July and August, majorities of those who heard a lot about the health care proposals were opposed to them. But in the current survey, people who say they have heard a lot about the bills are evenly divided in their views – 46% generally favor them while 46% are opposed.

That is roughly the same balance of opinion as among those who have heard less about the proposals: among the less attentive group, 38% are generally in favor of the proposals while 39% are opposed and 23% offer no opinion.

Cite this publication: “Obama Approval Ratings Steady, Personal Image Remains Positive.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 17, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/09/17/obama-approval-ratings-steady-personal-image-remains-positive/, accessed on July 22, 2014.