By Dan Balz and Peyton M. Craighill
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will speak to the nation Tuesday night with approval ratings lower than for any of his previous State of the Union addresses and with Americans broadly pessimistic that he or lawmakers of either party will make good decisions for the future of the country, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Obama’s general weakness and the overall lack of confidence in the country’s political leadership provide a stark backdrop to the beginning of a potentially significant election year. Obama is looking to rebound from what many have judged to be the worst year of his presidency while Republicans, who were damaged during last fall’s partial government shutdown, are hoping to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats.
Obama’s standing will be an important factor in how those fall elections turn out. For Democrats, the good news is that he has improved his position from the lows of last year, when the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act took his ratings to the lowest point of his presidency.
His current approval stands at 46 percent, up from a low of 42 percent in November. Still, for the first time on the eve of a State of the Union address, more Americans rate his performance negatively than positively, with 50 percent disapproving. His previous low at the start of a new year was 48 percent positive, 48 percent negative in 2012. A year ago, his approval rating was 55 percent.
Just 37 percent say they have either a good amount or a great deal of confidence in the president to make the right decisions for the country’s future, while 63 percent say they do not. Those numbers are the mirror image of what they were when he was sworn into office in 2009 and lower than at any other time the question was asked by The Washington Post and ABC News.
Obama’s approval ratings are almost identical to those of George W. Bush at a similar point in his presidency in 2006. Other recent two-term presidents — Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan — were at 60 percent approval at the start of their sixth years, while Richard Nixon, in the middle of the Watergate scandal, was at 26 percent.
Confidence in Democrats and Republicans in Congress is even lower than for Obama. Twenty-seven percent say they have confidence in Democrats to make the right decisions for the country as opposed to 72 percent who do not, while just 19 percent have confidence in Republicans, while 80 percent do not. Almost half lack confidence in all three.
For the GOP, the lack of faith in their decision-making includes their own followers. Just 36 percent of self-identified Republicans say they believe their party’s lawmakers will make good decisions. In contrast, a majority of Democrats have confidence in their congressional party.
The low confidence in congressional Democrats and Republicans is consistent with a pattern of poor ratings on congressional performance that marked the past year. In the new poll, just 16 percent approve of the way Congress is doing its job, only a few points higher than the lowest reading recorded by the Post-ABC poll last October, just after the partial shutdown ended.
White House officials look to Tuesday’s speech as a moment for the president to try to gain some momentum. He still receives low grades for his handling of the implementation of the health-care law — 37 percent approve and 59 percent disapprove — and his economic ratings, at 43 percent positive and 55 percent negative, are not much better than they were at the end of last year.
Americans are similarly negative about the president’s handling of two major foreign policy issues, Iran and Syria. Four in 10 approve of his handling of the situation with Iran at a time of diplomatic efforts to prevent the Iranians from obtaining nuclear-weapons capability. Just one-third approve of his handling of the Syrian conflict.
The president gets positive marks for his overall handling of terrorism, with half the country approving of how he has handled these threats. But assessments of his recent recommendations for limiting the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs are more equivocal. Four in 10 Americans say they believe those steps are “about right” to deal with the problems highlighted as a result of leaks of classified information by former NSA analyst Edward J. Snowden. Almost three in 10 say the steps do not go far enough, while two in 10 say they go too far.
Although the president’s approval and favorable ratings have risen somewhat from their lows of last year, other personal attributes are stagnant. The country is almost evenly divided over whether he is honest and trustworthy, while 52 percent say he does not “understand the problems of people like you” and 51 percent say he is not a strong leader.
Obama’s agenda for the year includes passage of an extension of long-term unemployment benefits and immigration reform. Six in 10 Americans support the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, but on immigration the country is evenly divided over the question of whether undocumented immigrants should be given the right to live and work here legally. Republicans and Democrats stand on opposite sides of this issue.
White House officials have said Obama also will look to use executive actions to advance some other priorities, given likely opposition from congressional Republicans. A majority say they support presidents using executive actions to bypass Congress to take action.
Republicans hope to make Obama’s health-care law a centerpiece of their midterm election message, but the new poll shows that it is a less important issue for voters than in 2010. Opposition is not quite as strong as it was in November, when controversy surrounding the administration’s website for signing up for insurance was at its peak.
At this point, 46 percent support the law and 49 percent oppose it, with Democrats strongly supportive and Republicans even more strongly opposed. Just under four in 10 say the law should be repealed. But confidence in the administration on implementation remains low. Six in 10 say the federal website, HealthCare.gov, is not working as it should and a majority say that is a sign of broader problems with the law.
Looking ahead toward the midterm elections, Americans continue to see the country seriously off track, with just 35 percent saying things are going in the right direction. But that is eight points higher than it was in November, driven mostly by a big jump among independents. Among those who approve of Obama’s job performance, almost seven in 10 say the country is going in the right direction.
Roughly equal numbers of Americans say they will vote for the Republican candidate for Congress as say they will vote for the Democratic candidate. At the same time, more than six in 10 say they are inclined to look around for someone else to vote for rather than the incumbent in their district.
Republicans have a clear advantage on which party would better handle the economy and the federal budget deficit. The GOP’s lead on the economy is their largest in Post-ABC polling since 2002. Republicans also have an advantage on the question of which party has better ideas about the “right size and role of the federal government.”
But while Republicans score higher on fiscal issues, Democrats hold an edge on issues related to health care, raising the minimum wage, helping the middle class and understanding the economic problems people in the country are having.
On other issues, more Americans say they identify with Democrats’ positions on abortion and same-sex marriage than say they identify with the Republicans’, but Republicans have the edge on gun control.
The economy remains the top voting issue, followed by the budget deficit, the way Washington is working and the new health-care law.
The Post-ABC poll was conducted Jan. 20-23 among a random national sample of 1,003 adults, including interviews on land lines and with cellphone-only respondents. The overall margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
By Dan Balz and Peyton M. Craighill
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