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One Year After Election, Americans Less Sure About Obama

Far fewer say he will be able to control federal spending or heal political divisions

PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans are much less positive than they were a year ago that President Barack Obama will be able to accomplish a number of challenges facing his administration. In particular, far fewer Americans believe he will be able to heal political divisions and control federal spending.

Will the Obama Administration Be Able to Do Each of the Following? 2008-2009 Trend

Gallup asked Americans about eight specific administration goals shortly after Obama's election last November, and updated these attitudes in mid-October 2009.

"Two-thirds of Americans now say the country is more deeply divided on the major issues facing the country than it has been in the past several years, an increase of 11 points from the record-low reading on this last November."

Given Obama's decline in overall job approval this year, it may not be surprising to find that Americans have become at least somewhat less optimistic about Obama's ability to accomplish these goals. The drop since last November in the percentage saying Obama would be able to accomplish them ranges from 5 percentage points for "keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism" to a 26-point drop on "healing political divisions in this country."

In spite of the declines, more than half of Americans remain confident that Obama will be able to achieve four important goals:

  • Increase respect for the U.S. abroad
  • Keep the U.S. safe from terrorism
  • Bring U.S. troops home from Iraq in a way that is not harmful to the U.S.
  • Reduce unemployment

Less than half are confident that Obama will be able to achieve success on four other goals:

  • Bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan in a way that is not harmful to the U.S.
  • Improve the healthcare system
  • Control federal spending
  • Heal political divisions in this country

Americans are least confident that Obama will be able to heal political divisions in this country. This perception is underscored by the results of a separate question that asked about the degree of political division in the country. Two-thirds of Americans now say the country is more deeply divided on the major issues facing the country than it has been in the past several years, an increase of 11 points from the record-low reading on this last November.

Do You Think the Country Is or Is Not More Deeply Divided This Year on the Major Issues Facing It Than It Has Been in the Past Several Years?

The "more deeply divided" response had been as high (and as negative) as 72% in a November 2004 survey conducted just after George W. Bush's re-election to his second term as president. The current 68% reading is just slightly below this level, but higher than was seen immediately after the Supreme Court settled the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

Some had hoped that Obama's election would bring the nation closer together. The significant drop in views that Obama will be able to heal political divisions and the increase in views that the U.S. is more deeply divided than in previous years suggest that the American people are not convinced this has occurred.

Obama's Job Approval Ratings One Year After His Election

One year after his election, President Obama has a 53% job approval rating, putting him near the bottom of the list of elected presidents since World War II, rank-ordered on the basis of their approval ratings one year after their initial election.

Post-WW II Presidential Job Approval Ratings, One Year After Election (Presidents Elected to First Terms)

Obama's current 53% job approval rating (for the week of Oct.26-Nov. 1) is ahead of Bill Clinton's rating one year after his election, and essentially tied with Reagan's in 1981 and Carter's in 1977. The other five presidents -- George W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon, and Dwight Eisenhower -- all had significantly higher ratings a year after their election.

Each president faced a unique set of circumstances at a similar point in his presidency. For example, George W. Bush's extremely high ratings a year after his election reflected the rally effect that resulted from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. There is little doubt that the current bad economy and the highly partisan debate over healthcare are pulling down Obama's overall rating. Regardless of the causes, however, the data show that Obama at this point is performing below the average for other presidents a year after their election.

Obama can take some solace, however, in the fact that two of the three presidents who had about the same, or lower, ratings at this juncture in their first year in office went on to be re-elected. And George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid, despite his lofty ratings a year after his 1988 election.

Obama's job approval ratings were at the 60% level or higher through mid-June of this year. They dropped through the summer months, but have stabilized in a fairly tight range between 50% and 54% since mid-August. The drop in Obama's ratings from his second quarter to his third quarter was the highest such drop in Gallup's history of tracking first-term presidents.

Barack Obama Job Approval Trend, 2009 Weekly Averages

Bottom Line

The public's view of a president's first year in office is far from being an effective predictor of how well he will ultimately be judged as president, nor is it a good predictor of his probability of being re-elected. Still, for the moment, the data show that President Obama is performing below average in the context of other presidents a year after their election, and that Americans have become less sure that he will be able to accomplish a number of his administration's goals.

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Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,521 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 16-19, 2009, including an oversample of 408 blacks, consisting of 102 interviews done as part of the random national sample and 306 interviews with blacks who had previously participated in national Gallup Polls and agreed to be re-interviewed at a later date. The data from the national sample and re-interviews are combined and weighted to be demographically representative of the national adult population in the United States and to reflect the proper proportion of blacks in the overall population. For results based on this sample of national adults, the maximum margin of error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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