PRINCETON, NJ -- Even before he addressed Congress and the nation on Tuesday about his plans for leading the country out of economic peril, President Barack Obama was enjoying solid public support for his work to date. For instance, 59% of those surveyed in a Feb. 20-22 USA Today/Gallup poll said Obama is going at about the right speed in addressing the nation's problems. This was little different from a month ago.
Also, more Americans say the economic stimulus package supported by Obama contains either the right amount of government spending or too little spending, rather than too much: 54% to 41%.
The Debt Caveat
At the same time, Obama's options on the economy going forward could be constrained by the public's fears about burdening the country with too much debt.
Of four major criticisms that have been leveled at Obama's economic policies, mainly from the political right, the possibility of expanding the federal debt sparks the most public concern. More than four in five Americans say they are worried about the amount of money being added to the federal debt, including 54% who are "very worried."
By contrast, fewer than half of Americans are very worried that the government's recent steps to address the economy will essentially fail to work, or that the increased borrowing needed to pay for them will spur inflation. Even fewer, just 34%, are very worried about the expanded role the government is playing in the nation's economy. (While large majorities of Americans are at least "somewhat worried" about each of these things, the greatest political impact would seem to result from Americans feeling "very worried.")
In contrast to Democrats, Republicans are highly unified in their deep concern about the federal debt: 71% say they are very worried about it. Only 36% of Democrats, but a majority of independents (60%), are highly worried.
This potentially critical point about the federal debt -- and the partisan nature of responses -- is reinforced in a separate question asking Americans whether they think the greater economic risk is spending too little money to improve the economy, or adding considerable amounts of money to the federal debt. Overall, 59% of Americans say adding too much to the federal debt is the greater danger, while only 37% choose spending too little on the economy.
Most Republicans (81%) say adding too much money to the federal debt poses the greater danger. Democrats fall on the other side, but with a less persuasive majority: 54% say spending too little to improve the economy is the greater risk. Again, independents generally share Republicans' sentiments on this issue.
Public Seems Comfortable for Now
Obama's recent announcement that he will cut the federal budget deficit in half by 2013 suggests he is aware of Americans' aversion to expanding the debt and may be trying to pre-empt Republican efforts to use that against his economic plans. However, Americans' support thus far for the economic stimulus package indicates they don't believe government spending is high enough at this point to pose a danger.
In addition to Gallup's recent finding that 59% of Americans supported passage of the economic stimulus bill in Congress, fewer than half of Americans -- 41% -- now say it would have been better to spend less money than what was contained in that bill. About the same number (40%) say the spending is about right, while 14% say it would have been better to spend more. Thus, by a 54% to 41% margin, Americans largely endorse the scope of spending in the stimulus package -- despite their debt concerns.
Of course, there are sharp differences in these views by party, with most Democrats in favor of spending at least as high as that contained in the stimulus package, and most Republicans in favor of less spending.
Democrats See a Quicker Recovery
Americans still see a long road to recovery for the economy. The vast majority (71%) believe it will be two or more years before the economy starts to recover, with an average prediction of 4.1 years. (See table at end for details.) However, this is slightly more optimistic than was seen in December, when 81% thought it would take two or more years, and the average predicted time was 5.2 years.
Republicans' outlook for economic recovery has hardly changed over the past two months, hovering around 5 years, while that of Democrats' has brightened somewhat, shrinking from 5.1 to 3.2 years.
Obama has the upper hand in leading the nation on the economy right now. Americans are comfortable with the pace of his actions and the scope of his economic spending, and they have become a bit more optimistic than before he took office about how long it will take for the economy to turn around. All of these attitudes could have become even more favorable to Obama after his address to Congress on Tuesday.
Still, the partisan breach beneath the surface of these attitudes is striking. Democrats express strong confidence in the economic measures Obama has taken in the past month. Republicans are highly wary of the amount of government spending involved, and what that means for the federal debt.
For now, independents are falling squarely on the Democrats' side in their reactions to Obama's economic leadership; but their latent concern about the federal debt is something Republican leaders can potentially work with, and something Obama and his advisers will have to monitor.
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,013 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Feb. 20-22, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling 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.