Fed Chief Bernanke Public Approval Falls to Lowest With Too-Slow Economy

Photographer: Chris Rank/Bloomberg

Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Close

Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

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Photographer: Chris Rank/Bloomberg

Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s standing with the public has slid to its lowest level in almost two years of polling on the issue, even as faith in the Federal Reserve holds up.

Bernanke is viewed favorably by 30 percent of those polled, compared with 26 percent who view him unfavorably; the remainder are unsure. In September of 2009, Bernanke enjoyed 41 percent approval and 22 percent disapproval. The Fed itself is viewed favorably by 42 percent of voters, little changed from previous surveys.

The Bloomberg National Poll, conducted June 17-20, shows that the reputation of Bernanke, who led the central bank through the longest U.S. recession since the Great Depression, has slid lower as the unemployment rate has remained stuck near 9 percent or higher for 26 consecutive months.

“It’s a reflection of the fact that most Americans still don’t feel the economy is in recovery,” said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Potomac Research Group in Washington. “If a team is doing poorly, the quarterback gets a disproportionate share of the blame.”

The survey also shows a politically polarized view of the central bank chairman. Bernanke is viewed favorably by 24 percent of Republicans and unfavorably by 32 percent. Those numbers are flipped with Democrats, 36 percent of whom view him positively and 16 percent negatively.

Central bankers can’t be influenced by concerns about the popularity of their actions, said Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Assigned a Job

“Fortunately we are not politicians -- we’re just assigned a job and whether it makes us popular or unpopular is not the issue,” Fisher said in an interview today on Bloomberg Television. “We are not in this business for popularity.”

Bernanke, 57, himself a registered Republican, became chairman of the Fed in February 2006, after being appointed to head the central bank by President George W. Bush. He was renominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed for a second term in January 2010.

The poll was conducted before the central bank’s meeting June 21-22 in which policy makers confirmed the end of their $600 billion bond-purchase program and renewed a pledge to hold interest rates near zero for an “extended period.”

Central bankers also cut their forecasts for growth this year and next and raised their estimates for unemployment. In a press conference yesterday, his second since becoming the Fed’s chairman, Bernanke said that “we don’t have a precise read on why this slower pace of growth is persisting.”

Stronger Headwinds

“Some of these headwinds may be stronger and more persistent than we thought,” said Bernanke, the former head of the Princeton University economics department, who also served as chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers.

“Two years ago he walked on water -- he extricated us from financial crisis and prevented a return to the Great Depression,” said Alan Levenson, chief economist of T. Rowe Price Group Inc. in Baltimore, which has almost $510 billion in assets under management, including those of more than 1 million retail investors.

“Now he’s saying unemployment is unacceptably high, but he’s not having as much success with that,” Levenson said. “To the man on the street, he had it going in 2009 but lost his touch.”

Second Round

In November of 2010, the Fed began the second round of its quantitative easing program in an attempt to boost growth, avert deflation and bring down the unemployment rate.

“It was a devil’s choice,” said survey respondent Marcus Wax, 21, a student at the University of North Dakota. “His motives were right, but I don’t really agree with the actions he’s taken.”

“Our problems are really beyond monetary policy,” said Wax. “All the free money he’s pumping out right now -- where’s it going to go afterwards?”

During Bernanke’s tenure, the central bank confronted a financial crisis that led to the collapse of Wall Street firms such as Bear Stearns Cos, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and American International Group Inc. In the course of the 18-month recession that followed, the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 57 percent from its record in October 2007.

Emergency Lending

The Federal Reserve undertook $3.3 trillion in emergency lending during the crisis and cut interest rates to a range of zero to 0.25 percent. To support the housing market, it launched a plan to purchase $1.43 trillion in housing debt.

In December 2009, Bernanke was dubbed Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” for being the “mild-mannered man” who “prevented an economic catastrophe.” The S&P 500 began to rise in March 2009 and has since climbed 90 percent.

“More than any other person on the face of the earth, he helped us avoid a total meltdown, but there’s a disconnect between people in the markets and American voters,” Valliere said. Bernanke’s insistence that inflation is low or transitory “flies in the face of most Americans’ focus on gasoline and food -- they see someone who is not plugged into ordinary Americans’ concerns,” Valliere said.

For Americans earning less than $25,000 a year, more view Bernanke unfavorably -- 24 percent -- than favorably -- 21 percent. For those earning more than $100,000, Bernanke is viewed positively by 42 percent and negatively by 27 percent.

Two-thirds of Americans in the Bloomberg Poll say the nation is on the “wrong track,” and 44 percent say they are worse off now than at the beginning of 2009. Fifty-five percent expect children will have a lower standard of living than their parents do today.

The poll, conducted by Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., is based on interviews with 1,000 U.S. adults. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

-- With assistance from Michael McKee in Dallas. Editors: Christopher Wellisz, Robin Meszoly

To contact the reporters on this story: Joshua Zumbrun in Washington at jzumbrun@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Wellisz at cwellisz@bloomberg.net

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