Obama Approval Dropping as Hard Choices Made

As President Obama settles into his fifth month in office, his personal popularity remains high but his job approval is slipping drastically, according to a new NYT/CBS News poll.

A substantial majority of Americans say President Obama has not developed a strategy to deal with the budget deficit, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, which also found that support for his plans to overhaul health care, rescue the auto industry and close the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, falls well below his job approval ratings.

A distinct gulf exists between Mr. Obama’s overall standing and how some of his key initiatives are viewed, with fewer than half of Americans saying they approve of how he has handled health care and the effort to save General Motors and Chrysler. A majority of people said his policies have had either no effect yet on improving the economy or had made it worse, underscoring how his political strength still rests on faith in his leadership rather than concrete results.

As Mr. Obama finishes his fifth month in office and assumes greater ownership of the problems he inherited, Americans are alarmed by the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been doled out to boost the economy. A majority said the government should instead focus on reducing the federal deficit.

But with a job approval rating of 63 percent, Mr. Obama has the backing of Democrats and independents alike, a standing that many presidents would envy and try to use to build support for their policies. His rating has fallen to 23 percent among Republicans, from 44 percent in February, a sign that bridging the partisan divide may remain an unaccomplished goal.

Compared to President Bush’s abysmal numbers, these numbers are quite good.  And, certainly, he inherited some extraordinary challenges, what with arguably the worst economy in decades and two ongoing wars.

Still, we’re finally witnessing something I predicted would happen during the Democratic primaries but did not.  Obama has been unrivaled in being all things to all people.   He managed to get the staunchly liberal base of his party on board while also gaining the support of libertarians like Megan McArdle and conservatives like Andrew Sullivan.

Now, though, he can no longer issue carefully crafted statements that people inclined to like him can imagine are exactly their preferred policies.  Instead, he has to make actual policy choices.  Inevitably — no matter how fantastic any group might think each decision is — this makes enemies.

Fiscally conservative types are aghast at the enormity of the bailout and the unprecedented intervention in the economy, such as the GM and Chrysler takeovers.  Meanwhile, the netroots are disappointed with Obama’s relative moderation on the social issues, like gay marriage.

The gaps on the “Views of the President” part of the poll and the “Views of the [Specific Issue]” would seem to indicate that there’s a lot more room for Obama’s support to soften.  A whopping 57 percent think he’s doing well on the economy, for example, yet only 41 percent think he’s doing the right thing on the budget and only 30 percent think he’s got a clear plan.  Something has to give, eventually, and I’d lay my bets on the 57.

Similarly, Obama has only 44 percent approval on health care.  I strongly suspect that this number will plummet, not increase, once he’s actually worked out a deal.  The left will be outraged that a Democratic president and Democratic Congress didn’t move us much closer to Single Payer.  The right — and my guess, the moderates, too — will think we’ve gone too far towards socialized medicine.   That’s just the nature of making hard decisions on divisive issues.

None of this is a prediction on the 2012 election, by the way.  Obama is an outstanding campaigner and is likely to be personally popular three and a half years from now.  And there’s no sign at all that the Republicans have revitalized their message and have a strong candidate ready to carry it.   Unless those things happen, Obama could get reelected with a 45 percent approval rating.

UPDATE: The new NBC/WSJ poll is out and it shows similar trends.

Nearly seven in 10 have serious reservations about the federal government’s ownership stake in General Motors. Almost 60 percent say that President Obama and Congress should worry more about keeping the deficit down — even if that means it will take longer for the economy to recover. And fewer than half of Americans have confidence in the president’s policies to improve the economy.

Obama remains a popular figure in the poll. But these numbers on the deficit and the government’s intervention seem to mark a new period for the administration, as the public moves from welcoming his inauguration and first days in office to examining his initial actions as president.


The drop mainly comes from independents, who backed Obama by 60 percent to 31 percent in April, but approve of him now by a 46-44 clip.

These trends are also interesting and conform to what I’d have guessed:

  • 26 percent view Dick Cheney favorably, which is up eight points from April
  • 24 percent view Nancy Pelosi favorably, which is down seven points from April
  • 25 percent hold a favorable view of the Republican Party, which is an all-time low for it in the poll
  • 45 percent hold a favorable view of the Democratic Party.
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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Duh. The carte du jour is always less popular than a blank slate. I continue to believe that President Obama will remain personally popular throughout his presidency even as the policies he proposes and supports lose favor.

  2. Davebo says:

    Wouldn’t you say that given his rather drastic propositions concerning health care, a 44% approval rating on the subject is surprisingly high?

  3. Actually, Obama is pretty much on-track with the standard first term presidential approval glide-path down. Especially when you take out the outliers of Clinton and W. who came into office with questions about the election (Third party candidacy and Florida ballots).

    There really isn’t anything unusual on his numbers either where they were or where they are heading.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW I think that Brooks is right on what will happen re: healthcare. The squabbles in Congress are a sideshow. The final plan will be enacted in the dead of night and Congress won’t actually know what’s in it. The details will be left to the technocrats running MedPAC.

  5. Eric Florack says:

    what ‘hard chocies’ are we talking about, here? I ask because I’ve seen none.

    You see, increasing government control and government spending has always and invariably been the easy way out…and like most easy ways out, and most ‘shortcuts’, it ends up biting us in the ass.

    When Mr. Obama starts making really hard choices, like actually cutting spending on something other than the miliary, I’ll consider this differently.

  6. Our Paul says:

    You are not going to get an argument on this point:

    None of this is a prediction on the 2012 election, by the way. Obama is an outstanding campaigner and is likely to be personally popular three and a half years from now. And there’s no sign at all that the Republicans have revitalized their message and have a strong candidate ready to carry it.

    There are those days that I wonder whether the Republican Party will ever again be a National player! That said, their constant negative hammering, and their easy access to the dreadful liberal press will have an effect. I suspect that if you asked folks what policy or action led to their negative impression of Nancy Pelosi they would be at a loss to answer.

    Open the window James, take a deep breath, clear your head a bit, and promise not to use the term “socialized medicine” without confronting the reality of the American Medical scene. If socialized medicine means you will no longer be able to chose your own physician, or consulting doc, guess what, most Insurance carriers are already imposing those limits. If you mean socialized medicine will limit what treatment options are available to you, guess what, Insurance carriers do that routinely if you start costing too much money. If you equate government sponsored health care with socialized medicine, where do you place Medicare and Medicaid in the scheme of things?

    For those who get their tingles from polls, the quoted Wall Street Journal NBC poll will make salacious reading. On page 19 the series of questions on Health Care begin with question 30, which is graphed out at the beginning of this blog. Based on a quick perusal, there is a “core” of respondents, in the range of 33 to 35% who oppose further government involvement in health care.

    The clunker is question 34a (pg 21) that centers on the importance of having a choice available between a public and private plan. Combining those that felt this was Extremely important (43%) and Quite important (35%) an astounding 76% wish this option to be available.

    It is question 34c that should warm the hearts of all those who shout Socialized Medicine from the roof tops. Of the respondents, 42% believed that the proposed Public Plan would “Limit access to doctors and treatment options”. This, when Medicare, the proposed model, does neither.

    Sigh, Dave Shuler may be right, but I sure wish he would stop pointing out my ignorance.

    R. Paul Miller, MD