January 20, 2015

Obama in a Word: ‘Good,’ ‘Incompetent’

Fewer See This Year’s State of the Union as More Important

Survey Report

What One Word Best Describes Barack ObamaAs public perceptions of Barack Obama have changed over the course of his presidency, so too have the words used to describe him.

The national survey by the Pew Research Center, conducted Jan. 7-11 among 1,504 adults, finds that the words good (35 mentions) and incompetent (33 mentions) are used most frequently to describe Obama. Those words also were used most often in June 2013, the last time this question was asked. This report shows the actual number of respondents mentioning each word; they are not percentages.

Shifting Impressions of Barack ObamaHowever, some new words have emerged in the descriptions of Obama: Among the roughly half of respondents asked the question (N=746), dictator is mentioned by 12, while eight describe Obama as impressive. Neither word had been used in nine prior surveys asking for one-word descriptions of Obama since he became president.

And a perennial critique of Obama – socialist – is not as prominent on the list of descriptions as in the past; in the new survey, five respondents describe Obama as a socialist. In April 2009, when Obama was generally described in positive terms (and his job approval was much higher than it is today), socialist stood out among the negatives.

Still, many of the descriptions of Obama are the same as those used in the past. Some supporters continue to point to his intelligence (21 mentions; another nine call him smart), while opponents describe him as an idiot or stupid (12). Nearly equal numbers call him honest (12) and a liar (11).

Importance of 2015 State of UnionIn February 2007, at a comparable point in his presidency, incompetent, arrogant and honest were frequently used descriptions of George W. Bush. Bush’s approval rating was lower than Obama’s (33% for Bush then, 47% for Obama today) and negative terms were used more frequently to describe him.

As Obama prepares to deliver his sixth State of the Union, 24% say his speech will be more important than past addresses, while 19% say it will be less important; 52% say it is about as important as previous State of the Unions.

Fewer view tonight’s speech as more important than said that before Obama’s State of the Union speeches in 2013 (32%) and 2012 (36%). And in January 2010, 39% viewed Obama’s State of the Union as more important than previous speeches.

Views of Importance of State of the Union: Obama, Bush and ClintonAs in past years, there are substantial partisan differences in opinions about the importance of Obama’s State of the Union address. Nearly four-in-ten Democrats (37%) say this year’s speech will be more important than those of previous years, compared with 20% of independents and just 13% of Republicans. By contrast, Republicans (32%) are far more likely than independents (22%) or Democrats (7%) to view Obama’s speech as less important.