President Barack Obama gets little credit from the public for economic progress under his watch as his job approval has plummeted to a new low of 42 percent in the Bloomberg National Poll.
Americans by 50 percent to 45 percent say improvements in the unemployment rate would have happened regardless of anything the Obama administration has done. Sixty percent say he isn’t responsible for a turnaround in housing and 64 percent don’t give him credit for surging stock prices, according to the telephone poll of 1,004 Americans taken Dec. 6-9.
“It’s more of a natural progression than anything: When the economy goes down, it also will go back up,” said Alexis Zmijeski, 21, of Smithfield, Rhode Island, a college senior and Democrat who voted to re-elect Obama. “Another president could have gotten the same results even if they implemented different policies.”
Public skepticism of an Obama role in the economic rebound is an obstacle to Democratic success in the 2014 midterm congressional elections and could undermine the political legacy of a president who arrived in office confronting the aftermath of the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
“It’s obviously damaging to Democrats as a party that voters can’t connect the dots between the president’s policies and the kind of economic recovery that takes place,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “Of all the issues, that’s the one that parties can really thrive on, when voters think that a party has helped the economy do well.”
After a budget deadlock with congressional Republicans that partially shut down the government for 16 days in October and the troubled start of the federal online health insurance exchange, Obama’s job approval dropped three percentage points since September.
Fifty-eight percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the economy -- a 10 percentage-point increase from a year ago and the largest number since September 2011 when a showdown over lifting the debt ceiling in August had brought the U.S. to the brink of default. Fifty-five percent disapprove of his performance on “making people like me feel more economically secure.”
Americans are in a gloomy mood this holiday season, with 67 percent saying the country is on the wrong track, just one percentage point better than three months ago.
The botched debut of the healthcare.gov website is raising doubts about Obama’s signature legislative achievement. Sixty percent of Americans disapprove of Obama’s handling of health care, up from 54 percent in September. That includes almost a quarter of Democrats and two-thirds of political independents.
Americans’ unwillingness to credit Obama with economic progress could curtail his lasting reputation in a nation that has given added weight to presidencies interpreted as financial successes.
The conservative political philosophy espoused by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s economic boom benefited his party for a generation. The credit Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies received for the recovery from the Great Depression shifted favor toward an activist government for decades.
Still, public opinion of the moment doesn’t necessarily determine how the country later will look back at a president’s contribution to the nation’s economic well-being.
“The story evolves as it’s told over decades,” Zelizer said. “Over time, we sort through these things more carefully. It’s not so much about the messaging, whether Obama was able to explain what his policies did or Republicans were better at disparaging. It’s looking at the big picture.”
Entering office in the wake of a global financial crisis triggered by a housing bust and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Obama responded with an $830 billion economic stimulus, an auto industry bailout, incentives for banks to offer more lenient terms for delinquent mortgage borrowers and rules changes to make it easier for those with mortgages greater than their home’s value to refinance loans.
Economic growth also has been spurred by the independent Federal Reserve, which has maintained a policy of monetary easing that has kept short-term interest rates near zero since the 2008 financial crisis.
The unemployment rate, after peaking at 10 percent in October 2009, dropped to 7 percent this November. The median price of existing homes sold in October swelled 12.8 percent from a year earlier. The benchmark Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index is up more than 26 percent so far this year and almost 113 percent since Obama took office.
Even as the White House has concentrated since October on improving the healthcare.gov website and promoting benefits in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obama has highlighted his economic agenda. In a Dec. 4 speech, he called growing economic inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”
Even amid the signs of an economic recovery, many Americans have experienced a decline in living standards.
Median household income adjusted for inflation has declined every year Obama has been in office, from $53,644 in 2008 to $51,017 in 2012, the lowest level since 1994, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The richest 10 percent of Americans earned a larger share of income last year than at any time since 1917, according to research by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. Those in the top one-tenth of income distribution earned at least $146,000 in 2012, almost 12 times what those in the bottom tenth made, census data show.
One exception to the public’s refusal to credit Obama for economic achievements is the budget deficit, which the Congressional Budget Office predicts will decline in 2014 to $560 billion from $1.1 trillion in 2012. When told the forecast that the deficit will half the size it was two years ago, Americans by 49 to 42 percent say the president deserves recognition for that.
Still, Obama isn’t receiving public acclaim on the deficit. Sixty-three percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of it, the worst reading in a poll that goes back to September 2009.
Americans also are losing confidence in his relations with congressional Republicans. Fifty-five percent disapprove of his handling of negotiations with partisan adversaries, compared with 46 percent disapproval in September.
Six months after Edward Snowden disclosed National Security Agency surveillance of telephone records and Internet communications, Obama’s defense of the spy agency remains a sore point with the public. Two-thirds of Americans disapprove of his response to the episode; even Democrats disapprove by 45 percent to 40 percent.
The interim nuclear deal Obama negotiated with Iran is not winning over Americans either. The public disapproves of his handling of relations with Iran by 49 percent to 36 percent. Fifty-one percent disapprove of his management of the U.S. reputation in the world.
While Obama’s personal popularity has generally been higher than ratings of his job performance, that has suffered too. For the first time in the Bloomberg poll, a majority of respondents hold an unfavorable impression of the president: 52 percent versus 46 percent favorable. In September, Americans were about evenly split between 47 percent favorable and 49 percent unfavorable.
The poll was conducted by Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
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