December 16, 2009

Mixed Views of Obama at Year’s End

Unabated Economic Gloom, Divides on Afghanistan and Health Care

Overview

Public opinion about President Barack Obama and his major polices continues to be divided as the year comes to a close. His overall approval rating is 49%, which is largely unchanged from November (51%). However, the percentage expressing at least a fair amount of confidence in Obama to do the right thing when it comes to fixing the economy has slipped from 59% in October to 52% currently. Smaller percentages express confidence in Obama on health care reform (44%) and reducing the budget deficit (41%).

Opinions about Afghanistan also are mixed: 50% express confidence in Obama to do the right thing regarding the situation in Afghanistan, which is unchanged from October. About the same percentage (51%) supports his decision to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan. While an increasing percentage of Americans say the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan is going well, just 36% say Obama has a clear plan to bring the situation there to a successful conclusion.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Dec. 9-13 among 1,504 adults reached on landlines and cell phones, finds that while views about Obama are mixed, opinions about the national economy are not. Just 8% say economic conditions are excellent or good while 91% say they are only fair or poor. Views of the national economy have changed little over the past six months.

A plurality (39%) says that Obama’s economic policies have not had an effect so far; as in October, somewhat more say his policies have made things better (30%) than worse (24%). But when asked which party is more responsible for current economic conditions, far more people continue to say the Republican Party (39%) rather than the Democratic Party (27%) is responsible.

Opinions about the health care proposals in Congress have shown little movement over the past few months. As has been the case in most Pew Research Center surveys since July, there is currently more opposition than support for the proposals. Nearly half (48%) say they generally oppose the proposals in Congress to overhaul the health care system while 35% generally favor them. However, when asked for their reactions if the health care bills were enacted, nearly as many say they would be very happy or pleased (41%) as say they would be disappointed or angry (45%).

Opponents and supporters of health care reform point to familiar reasons for their positions. A third of opponents (33%) cite too much government involvement in health care as the most important reason for opposing the legislation. Other factors – such as health care reform being too expensive (17%) or that people’s own health care might suffer (13%) – are cited as most important by fewer of the bills’ opponents.

Among supporters of the health care bills, 37% cite expanding health coverage to the uninsured as the most important reason for their views. Nearly a quarter (24%) says the most important reason for their support is assuring that no one is denied coverage because of pre-existing conditions while smaller percentages cite other factors, including 6% who point to a government-provided “public option.”

The survey finds that as Obama nears the end of his first year in office, he gets high approval ratings from many of the same groups that strongly supported his election last year – African Americans and Democrats.

Fully 88% of non-Hispanic African Americans approve of Obama’s job performance, compared with 39% of non-Hispanic whites. Obama continues to draw broad support from his Democratic base: comparable percentages of liberal Democrats (85%) and conservative and moderate Democrats (82%) approve of the way he is handling his job. By contrast, Republicans overwhelmingly disapprove (19% approve vs. 73% disapprove); among conservative Republicans just 12% approve of Obama’s job performance while 82% disapprove. (For more detailed breakdowns of Obama’s ratings, see the table at the end of this report).

Obama’s overall ratings – as well as his ratings among most subgroups in the population – have changed only modestly in recent months. While independents overall are divided in their views of Obama’s job performance (42% approve vs. 44% disapprove), there is a sharp divide among those who lean Democratic and those who lean Republican: 69% of Democratic-leaning independents approve of Obama’s performance compared with only 17% of Republican-leaning independents.

Liberal Backing

Yet there a number of indications, aside from his approval ratings, that Obama retains strong support from his Democratic base. In particular, there is little evidence that liberal Democrats are becoming disillusioned with Obama.

When those who approve of Obama’s performance are asked if there is anything that disappointed them, just 29% of liberal Democrats who approve of Obama’s job say there is something he has done to make them unhappy; two-thirds of liberal Democrats (67%) say they cannot think of anything that has disappointed them. This is little different from the views of all Democrats who approve of Obama’s performance (27% disappointed by something, 70% not).

Moreover, an overwhelming proportion of liberal Democrats (84%) say Obama is doing an excellent or good job “in standing up for the traditional positions of the Democratic Party.” A smaller majority of conservative and moderates (69%) say that Obama does an excellent or good job in advocating for the party’s traditional positions.

At the same time, however, there has been a decline since June in the percentage of liberal Democrats who say that Obama mostly listens to liberals in his party, rather than the party’s moderates. Currently, 20% of liberal Democrats say he is listening more to the party’s liberals compared with 54% who say he listens more to the party’s moderates. In June, as many liberal Democrats said that Obama was listening more to those in their wing of the party as said he was listening more to Democratic moderates (41% vs. 42%).

The survey also finds unusual political cross-currents about Obama’s handling of Afghanistan in the wake of his decision to increase the number of U.S. forces in the country. Fully 65% of Republicans support Obama’s decision, compared with just 49% of independents and 45% of Democrats.

Nonetheless, Democrats express greater confidence in his handling of the situation in Afghanistan and are more likely to say he has a clear plan for successfully ending the war. About half of Democrats (51%) say he has a clear plan for bringing the situation in Afghanistan to a successful conclusion, compared with 35% of independents and only 18% of Republicans.

Obama’s Year-End Rating

A 49% plurality of the public approves of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president, while 40% disapprove. Obama’s job approval rating has been relatively stable over recent months, though the percentage disapproving has edged up four points, from 36% in November to 40% in the current survey.

Over the course of the year, Obama’s approval rating has declined substantially. In February, 64% approved of his job performance while just 17% disapproved. Obama’s job approval rating first fell below 60% in July and in recent months has remained at ar
ound 50%.

Obama’s current rating is far below George W. Bush’s at a comparable point in his first year in office. In November 2001, 84% of the public approved of Bush’s job performance; Bush’s approval rating, which was at 51% shortly before the 9/11 attacks surged in the weeks and months after the attack. George H.W. Bush also had a much higher rating in December of his first year (71%) than Obama does today. On the other hand, Obama’s ratings are very close to those of Bill Clinton (48% approval) and Ronald Reagan (49%) near their first anniversaries in office.

Negatives and Positives

Overall, a large majority (66%) of those who approve of Obama’s job performance say they cannot think of anything that they have been disappointed or unhappy with, but as many as 30% pointed to something that had disappointed them. When asked to elaborate, no single concern or complaint predominates among those who generally approve of Obama’s performance: 9% cite Afghanistan or the troop increase and 7% cite health care as what has disappointed them.

The survey also finds that nearly three-fourths (73%) of those who disapprove of Obama’s job performance cannot think of anything he had done that they have been happy with, while 24% of disapprovers say there are some things that Obama has done that have made them happy. Among those who disapprove of Obama’s performance, 7% cite Afghanistan and 6% cite economic issues, including the stimulus, as things he has done that have made them happy.

Confidence on Issues

About half (52%) say they have either a great deal (20%) or a fair amount (32%) of confidence in Obama to do the right thing when it comes to the economy. Similar percentages express confidence in Obama’s ability to handle the situation in Afghanistan (50%) and global climate change (48%).

However, the balance of opinion is reversed when it comes to health care reform and the federal budget deficit. More (51%) say they have not too much or no confidence in Obama on health care than say they are confident in the president (44%). Similarly, 53% express little confidence in Obama’s ability to reduce they federal budget deficit, while just 41% are confident.

There continue to be wide partisan differences in evaluations of Obama’s handling of top issues. Just 15% of Republicans express confidence in Obama when it comes to health care reform, compared with 76% of Democrats and 38% of independents. Similar party gaps exist on other issues, including the economy and federal budget deficit. The partisan divide is much smaller when it comes to Obama’s handling of the situation in Afghanistan. About four-in-ten (38%) Republicans express confidence in the president on this issue along with 46% of independents and 69% of Democrats.

Obama’s New Approach

Most Americans (53%) still say Barack Obama has a “new approach” to politics in Washington, but fewer say this now than in September. At the same time, the percentage saying that Obama’s approach to politics is “business as usual” has increased by seven points: from 30% in September to 37% in the current survey.

This shift in opinion has been driven in large part by Republicans and independents. In September, by nearly two-to-one, more independents said Obama’s approach to politics was new (62%) than said it was business as usual (34%). In the current survey, 48% of independents view Obama’s as approach new compared with 42% who say it is business as usual. And among Republicans, the percentage saying Obama has a new approach to politics has declined from 50% in September to 39% today.

While more liberal Democrats say Obama is listening to moderates in the party than to party liberals, the overall balance of opinion on this measure has changed little since spring. Currently, 43% of the public says that Obama listens more to Democratic liberals while 31% say he listens more to party moderates. Republicans (66%) and, to a lesser extent, independents (47%) are inclined to see Obama listening more to liberals in his party than to moderates. By contrast, more Democrats (48%) say Obama is listening to moderates rather than to liberals (24%).

Obama Overextended?

Currently, 45% say that Obama is trying to address too many issues at once, compared with 42% who say he is doing about right; just 8% say he is focusing on too few issues. Opinion is unchanged from October, but has shifted since the spring. However, in April just 34% said Obama was overextended while 56% said he was doing about right.

Slightly more than a third of the public (36%) thinks that Obama has kept almost all (8%) or most (28%) of his campaign promises; 57% say he has kept only a few (33%) or almost none (24%). As might be expected, there is a sizable partisan divide how well Obama has done in living up to his campaign promises. Most Democrats (59%) say he has kept at least most of his campaign promises while 79% of Republicans say he has kept only a few or almost none. Notably, independents views about this issue are closer to those of Republicans than Democrats: 63% of independents say Obama has kept at most only a few of his campaign promises compared with 29% who say he has kept almost all or most of his promises.

Congressional Leadership Ratings

Approval ratings for Republican congressional leaders, while weak, have improved modestly since October. Currently, 29% approve of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing while 51% disapprove. In October, just 24% approved and 60% disapproved.

Views of Republican Party leaders have improved among the Republican base. By 51% to 35%, more Republicans now approve than disapprove of the job being done by GOP congressional leaders. Two months ago, Republicans were evenly split over the performance of their party’s congressional leaders (42% approve vs. 41% disapprove). In addition, while just 24% of independents approve of GOP leaders’ job performance, which is little changed from October (20%), there has been a decline in the proportion of independents disapproving (from 61% to 51%).

Overall, Democratic leaders in Congress receive better job ratings than do Republican leaders. Nonetheless, the ratings of Democratic leaders are far from glowing: 36% approve of the job they are doing, compared with 47% who disapprove.

As with Republicans, rank-and-file Democrats have become somewhat more favorable toward their congressional leaders over the past few months; currently, 71% approve of the job they are doing, up from 57% in October. Independents have also softened their views of Democratic leaders somewhat: overall, 51% of independents disapprove of congressional Democratic leaders, down from 60% two months ago. As was the case in October, independents give comparable ratings for Republican leaders (24% approve, 51% disapprove) as for Democratic leaders (26% approve, 51% disapprove).

Who Leads the GOP?

Just one-in-four (25%) Americans, including 28% of Republicans, can name someone who they think of as the leader of the Republican Party these days. Roughly three-quarters (77%) say they don’t know who leads the party, or volunteer that nobody does.

Of the names offered as the GOP’s leader, John McCain continues to be mentioned more than any other. About one-in-ten Americans (9%) – and the same number of Republicans – offer McCain’s name as the leader of the party. Only two other names are mentioned by more than 1% – Rush Limbaugh (3%) and Sarah Palin (2%). Interestingly, Palin has risen to second on the list among Republicans, with 5% naming her as the party’s leader, up from 1% in March. Meanwhile, fewer Republicans name Rush Limbaugh as the party’s leader (1% down from 4% in March).

Conservatives Back Obama on Afghanistan

Barack Obama’s decision to additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan was received far more positively among Republicans – especially conservative Republicans – than any other political group. Fully 71% of conservative Republicans favored the decision. That compares with 49% of independents and 45% of Democrats. Liberal Democrats are the only political group where more oppose (50%) than favor (42%) Obama’s troop decision.

Younger Americans, who continue to give Obama the strongest job approval ratings overall, are less supportive than older people of the decision to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Just 39% of people under age 30 favor the troop increase, while 52% are opposed. There is majority support for the decision among all older age groups. In addition, men are substantially more likely than women (57% vs. 46%) to support Obama’s decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. And college graduates back the decision by nearly two-to-one (59% favor, 31% oppose) while people with no college education are divided evenly (44% favor, 46% oppose).

Those who have heard a lot about Obama’s decision are far more supportive of the increase in troop levels than those who heard little or nothing about it. Those who heard a lot about the decision favor it by a 61% to 32% margin. Those who heard only a little or nothing are more likely to oppose (47%) than favor (40%) the decision.

Obama receives substantially higher ratings for having a clear plan for Afghanistan than George W. Bush did following the announcement of the “surge” in January of 2007. At that time, just 22% of Americans thought Bush had a clear plan for Iraq, and only 31% favored the decision to increase troop levels. Today, 36% believe Obama has a clear plan, and 51% favor the decision.

The difference is from outside of Obama’s political base. While only 18% of Republicans believe Obama has a clear plan for Afghanistan, that compares to just 7% of Democrats who believed this about Bush following the announcement of the “surge” in 2007. And currently 35% of independents believe Obama has a clear plan for Afghanistan, compared with just 19% who said the same about Bush nearly three years ago.

Public opinion about the situation in Afghanistan has also improved following Obama’s announced troop increase. A month ago, just 36% said the military effort there was going very or fairly well. Today, 46% offer a favorable assessment. And roughly six-in-ten Americans (59%) believe that the U.S. will either definitely or probably succeed in achieving its goals in Afghanistan. This is nearly as high as the share who believes the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals in Iraq (63%).

These evaluations of the situation in Afghanistan are far more upbeat than the public’s expectations about Iraq when Bush announced the troop increase there. In February of 2007, just three-in-ten (30%) believed the military effort in Iraq was going very or fairly well, and fewer than half (47%) thought the U.S. would ultimately succeed there. It took nearly two years – or until George W. Bush was leaving office – for public reactions to the situation in Iraq to turn in a decidedly favorable direction.

One major difference in public evaluations of the two situations is in how essential military success is to U.S. security. Currently, 52% of Americans say that success in Afghanistan is very important to preventing terrorist attacks against the United States, and another 30% say it is somewhat important. Only 16% believe success in Afghanistan is not too or not at all important in this regard. The balance of public opinion about Iraq was the reverse three years ago. Though the question is different, just 37% felt America’s safety from terrorism depended on success in Iraq, while 57% said that it did not.

Health Care Reform Still Hard to Understand

The debate over health care reform continues to attract the public’s attention. About half (51%) say they have heard a lot about the bills in Congress to overhaul the health care system; another 39% have heard a little and only 9% have heard nothing at all. Pew Research’s weekly News Interest Index found that the health care debate was once again the week’s most closely followed news story.

However, after months of debate over health care, a large majority of Americans (69%) say they find the issue hard to understand, which is slightly higher than in late July (63%). (For more from the latest weekly News Interest Index survey, see “Public Closely Tracking Health Care Debate,” released December 16, 2009).

By a 48% to 35% margin, more people say they generally oppose than say they generally favor the health care proposals being discussed in Congress. In four of six previous surveys dating back to July, there has been more opposition than support for the health care proposals.

A majority of Democrats (59%) favor the health care bills being discussed in Congress, compared with only 11% of Republicans. About a third (32%) of independents favor the proposals, but there is a substantial divide within independents; 56% of Democratic-leaning independents support the bills compared with only 9% of Republican-leaning independents.

A majority (58%) of those who have heard a lot about the bills oppose them while only 32% favor them. By comparison, opinion among those who have heard a little or nothing at all is evenly divided (38% favor, 38% oppose and 25% are unsure). There are no significant differences by gender or income, but there continue to be substantial age differences in opinion about the health care bills. Fewer than a quarter (23%) of those ages 65 and older favor them compared with more than a third in all other age groups. Just a third (33%) of those who say they have health insurance favor the health care proposals. While support is somewhat greater among those who do not have insurance, fewer than half in this group (43%) favors the bills before Congress.

When asked how they would feel if the proposed health care bills are passed into law, 41% say they would be pleased (29%) or very happy (12%) and 45% say they would be disappointed (25%) or angry (20%); another 14% are unsure how they would feel. These percentages are little changed from August.

Opponents Cite Too Much Government

Among opponents of the health care bills, 84% say too much government involvement in health care is a major reason for their opposition and 75% say health care reform is too expensive for the country. Seven-in-ten cite possible cuts in Medicare and concern that their own health care may suffer as major reasons for their opposition. About two-thirds (66%) of opponents say the possibility of covering illegal immigrants is a major reason they oppose the bills and 58% say a major reason is the possibility that government money might pay for abortions.

Most opponents cite multiple reasons as major factors in their opposition; 96% say one or more are major reasons and 71% cite four or more as major reasons. When asked a follow-up question about the most important reason why they oppose the bills, 33% cite too much government involvement in health care, 17% say health care reform is too expensive for the country, and 13% say their own health care may suffer as the most important reason for their opposition. About one-in-ten cite possible cuts in Medicare (11%) as the most important reason they oppose the bills and that the plan might cover illegal immigrants (10%). Only 8% say that government money possibly paying for abortions is the most important reason for their opposition.

There are significant differences in opinion by age. Those ages 50 and older are more likely than those under 50 to say that possible cuts in Medicare are a major reason for their opposition (82% vs. 59%) and that this is the most important reason for their opposition (16% vs. 8%). However, even among this age group, the issue of possible Medicare cuts ranks far lower than too much government involvement in health care; 33% of those 50 and older say this is the most important reason for their opposition. Opponents 50 and older are also more likely than those under 50 to say health care reform is too expensive, that it might cover illegal immigrants and that it would mean too much government involvement in health care are major reasons for their opposition.

There are few differences among most demographic groups about other reasons for opposition to the bills, including on whether people think their own health care may suffer. Women are somewhat more likely than men to say this is a major reason (74% vs. 66%) and that this is the most important reason for their opposition (16% vs. 10%).

Supporters Cite Expanding Coverage

Among supporters of the health care bills, 86% say expanding health coverage to the uninsured is a major reason for their support and 84% cite assuring that no one is denied coverage because they have pre-existing conditions as a major reason. About seven-in-ten (72%) say the current system costs too much and 64% say insurance companies doing a bad job are major reasons for their support.

Smaller percentages cite the creation of a government “public option” (52%) and improvements in their own health care coverage (46%) as major reasons for supporting the bills.

As is the case with opponents, most supporters cite multiple reasons as major factors for why they favor the bills; 94% say one or more are major reasons and 67% cite four or more as major reasons. When asked a follow-up question about the most important reason why they support the bills, 37% say expanding coverage to the uninsured and 24% cite assuring coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. Fewer say the current system costs too much (14%), that insurance companies are doing a bad job (7%), it will create a government “public option” (6%) and their own health care will improve (5%) are the most important reasons for their support of the bills.

Far more supporters without health insurance than those with health insurance say improved health care coverage is a major reason why they favor the bills (83% vs. 37%). Similarly, 61% of those with annual family incomes less than $50,000 say this is a major reason for their support compared with 31% of those with annual incomes of $50,000 or more.

Unabated Economic Gloom

Ratings of the national economy are virtually unchanged from November: Currently, just 8% say national economic conditions are either excellent (1%) or good (7%) while 91% say they are only fair (41%) or poor (50%).

There has been a substantial decline in the proportion of Americans saying the economy is poor: 71% in February and 68% in March expressed this view. That fell to 52% in June and has remained at about that level since then (50% currently). However, positive ratings of the economy have not increased significantly over this period.

Similarly, opinions about whether the economy will improve over the next year have changed little in recent months. In the current survey, 42% say they expect economic conditions will be better a year from now; 39% said that a month ago. Optimism that economic conditions will improve reached a high for the year of 48% in June.

As 2009 comes to a close, a majority of Americans (53%) say they think their personal financial situation will improve a lot (9%) or some (44%) over the next year; 27% expect their finances to get worse. As for current views of personal finances, just 35% say they are in excellent (7%) or good shape (28%) while 63% say their finances are only fair (39%) or poor (24%). Measures of personal financial optimism and current evaluations have changed little in recent months.

Spending Cutbacks Still Common

As has been since last year, large percentages of Americans say they are cutting back on spending, delaying or canceling major purchases, and making changes in long-term investments.

Fully 70% say they are cutting back on holiday spending, which is largely unchanged from last December (73%). Indeed, despite recent signs of recovering consumer confidence, there is no evidence in the poll that the public is more willing to spend in any of several areas than it was a year ago.

More than eight-in-ten (84%) say they have either cut back on holiday or vacation spending, been eating out less often, or delayed or canceled plans for buying a new car or making a major home purchase; that is unchanged from December 2008 (84%). Similarly, 69% say they have either changed their savings or investments, delayed or canceled buying a new home or adjusted their retirement plans, which also is little changed from a year ago (65%).

Since last year, Pew Research surveys have consistently found that worry over future finances, rather than actual economic hardship, is a bigger factor in decisions to scale back spending. Currently, 30% of those who have changed spending habits say they have done so because their financial situation has gotten worse, while substantially more (49%) say they have cut back on spending because they worry their financial situation might get worse in the future. This is modestly changed from last December, when 28% said financial setbacks had caused them to spend less or rethink buying decisions and 57% said such changes were motivated by worry about the future.