Americans Feeling Better Than in 2009 Amid Skepticism on Obama

Americans Feeling Better Than in 2009 Amid Skepticism on Obama
Shoppers in La Jolla, California. Photographer: Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg

Public confidence in the U.S. economy is bolstering President Barack Obama’s re-election chances even as Americans continue to view his stewardship skeptically.

Americans by 43 percent to 33 percent see themselves as better off rather than worse off since Obama took office in January 2009, according to a Bloomberg National Poll conducted Sept. 21-24.

Thirty-three percent say they are hopeful about the economy, compared with 21 percent who say they are fearful things will get worse, and 45 percent who are cautious.

“I certainly don’t think it’s where we want to be, but it’s better,” says poll respondent Mica Darley-Emerson, 34, of Camp Dennison, Ohio, who with her husband just bought a new house with a yard and screened porch to raise their 18-month-old daughter. “We leveraged ourselves to the hilt to do it, but we felt optimistic enough about the future to make that investment.”

The easing anxiety hasn’t translated into satisfaction with Obama’s handling of the economy. Americans still disapprove 53 percent to 41 percent, about the same margin as in the last Bloomberg poll, taken in June.

No Magic Wand

“Obviously, the president of the United States doesn’t have a magic wand that he can wave and create 10 million jobs,” says poll respondent Steven Crews, 29, of Long Beach, California, a writer for a video-gaming magazine. “But he’s a leader. He can’t just say the Republicans are being obstinate -- which, of course, they are. You have no excuse when you’re the president.”

As recently as six months ago, Americans were evenly split on whether their lives were better or worse than when Obama took office. Throughout last year, more respondents said they were worse off than said they were better off.

The question has been fundamental to presidential campaigns since Ronald Reagan posed it during a debate with President Jimmy Carter in 1980. “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Reagan asked viewers.

On the campaign trail this year, Republicans argue that middle-income families have lost ground since Obama was elected.

More poll respondents, 33 percent, see the country moving in the right direction than at any time since March 2010, even as 60 percent still say the U.S. is on the wrong track.

Romney’s Strategy

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s economic strategy hasn’t won over the public.

Asked to choose between Obama’s support for targeting tax breaks and government resources to the middle class to stimulate demand versus Romney’s advocacy of tax cuts for high-income “job creators” to spark more investment, poll respondents favor the Obama approach 52 percent to 40 percent.

Many Americans have difficulty distinguishing Romney’s strategy from that of the last Republican president, George W. Bush. Forty-five percent say Romney’s economic policies would be a revival of Bush’s approach versus 37 percent who say they wouldn’t. The remainder is unsure.

Forty percent of the public says Obama’s economic policies follow in the tradition of former President Bill Clinton, while 43 percent disagree.

The U.S. unemployment rate, 8.1 percent in August, has remained stuck at or above 8 percent since February 2009, the longest stretch of such high joblessness since monthly figures were first compiled in 1948.

Signs of Life

Still, the economy has shown signs of life. The jobless rate dropped a full percentage point over the past 12 months, the steepest decline since 1948 during the same period in any election year except for Reagan’s re-election in 1984.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Stock Index has risen 14.6 percent this year as of yesterday’s close. Home prices in the second quarter rose by 2.25 percent from the previous three months, the best performance since the fourth quarter of 2005, according to S&P/Case-Shiller data. The Conference Board said yesterday its Consumer Confidence Index in September climbed to 70.3, its highest level in seven months.

“It seems pretty stable from our point of view,” says poll respondent Carolyn Mitchell, 70, of Amherst, New Hampshire. “Our real estate locally is beginning to pick up. Our kids are all doing fine. My husband works for a semiconductor company and sales keep going up every year.”

‘On the Streets’

Eduardo Hernandez of Palmetto Bay, Florida, says he and his wife and two children were almost “out on the streets” during the period after the electronics company he was working for moved production to Mexico and laid him off in December 2008.

“I was close to losing my apartment,” says Hernandez, 42, who found work as a hospice nurse in 2010 after a government-financed retraining program. “It was the graciousness of our owner that they waited. They held our rent for five months.”

Americans remain divided on the performance of Ben S. Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman whose response to the economic downturn with successive rounds of monetary easing has been criticized by Republicans.

Twenty-nine percent of the public hold a favorable view of Bernanke compared with 28 percent who have a negative view. In June, 29 percent held a positive view and 30 percent had a negative view.

Wealthier and better-educated Americans have a more favorable view of the economy than the rest of the country. College-educated respondents by 52 percent to 30 percent say they’re better off than in January 2009. Those with a high school education or less by 38 percent to 33 percent say they are better rather than worse off than when Obama took office.

Education, Income

Fifty-nine percent of respondents with annual household incomes of $100,000 or more say their situation has improved.

Economic optimism also rises with education and income. College-educated respondents are hopeful rather than fearful by a 2-to-1 margin. Americans who earn $100,000 or more are optimistic rather than pessimistic by a 3-to-1 margin.

The same divisions surface in appraisals of Obama’s handling of the economy. College-educated Americans are evenly split, while only 36 percent of those with a high school education or less rate Obama’s handling of the economy favorably.

The president’s job performance on the economy is rated favorably by 52 percent of those with an income of $100,000 or more. Among those with incomes between $50,000 and $99,000, only 37 percent rate Obama’s handling of the economy favorably. Among those with lower incomes, 42 percent rate Obama’s handling of the economy positively.

The poll of 1,007 adults was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

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