WASHINGTON — Americans’ views on the economy have dimmed this summer. But so far, the growing pessimism doesn’t seem to be taking a toll on President Barack Obama‘s re-election prospects.
More people now believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, a new Associated Press-GfK poll shows, and confidence in Obama’s handling of the economy has slipped from just a few months ago, notably among fellow Democrats.
The survey found that 86 percent of adults see the economy as “poor,” up from 80 percent in June. About half – 49 percent – said it worsened just in the past month. Only 27 percent responded that way in the June survey.
That can’t be good news for a president revving up his re-election campaign. Yet there are several hopeful signs for Obama.
Despite the perception of a weakening recovery, there has been no significant change in the number of people who say he deserves re-election: 47 percent as opposed to 48 percent two months ago. That’s a statistical dead heat with those who favor a change in the White House.
And more Americans still blame former President George W. Bush rather than Obama for the economic distress. Some 31 percent put the bulk of the blame on Obama, while 51 percent point to his Republican predecessor.
“I think Bush had a hand in it, too. Obama’s not totally responsible,” said Mary Parish, 68, of Troy, Tenn. An independent who voted for Republican John McCain in 2008, she said she doesn’t believe Obama has what it takes to heal the economy. “He’s a smooth-talking man. But he does not know what he’s doing.”
Obama also fares better than Congress in the blame department. Some 44 percent put “a lot” or “most” of the blame on Republicans while 36 percent point to congressional Democrats.
The gloomy economic outlook reflected in the poll, which was taken Aug. 18-22, follows a round of bleak government economic reports – on unemployment, the housing market and economic growth that fell below 1 percent for the first six months of the year. It was taken amid heightened worries of a new U.S. recession, fallout from a downgrade of the country’s credit rating and a spreading European debt crisis.
As the public’s outlook on the economy dips, so has approval for the president’s economic stewardship.
More than 6 in 10 – 63 percent – disapprove of Obama’s handling of the economy. Nearly half, or 48 percent, “strongly” disapproved. Approval of his economic performance now stands at just 36 percent, his worst approval rating on the issue in AP-GfK polling.
Among Democrats, 58 percent approve of the president’s handling of the economy, down from 65 percent in June. Among Republicans, approval dipped to 9 percent from 15 percent.
Just 51 percent consider Obama a strong leader, down from 60 percent in June and 65 percent following the capture and death of Osama bin Laden in May. In June, 85 percent of Democrats in the poll called him a strong leader. Now, the number is down to 76 percent.
Of course, there are limits to what a president can do.
“I think he can nudge it along, but really, it boils down to the private sector,” said Dan Elliott, 42, of Hillsboro, Ill., an independent who voted for Obama in 2008 and says he’ll probably vote for him again.
Judith Lee, 63, a retired teacher from Great Diamond Island, Maine, said she’s a Republican who voted for Obama in 2008 but has been disappointed by his leadership style.
“I don’t think he is a very forceful leader,” Lee said. “His style of leadership seems to be to look for consensus and ideas from other people, and it seems to have been ineffective. And Congress seems to be deadlocked on problems.”
Some 75 percent in the poll said the country is heading in the wrong direction, up from 63 percent in June. Among Democrats, 61 percent chose “wrong direction” – up from 46 percent in June.
And for the first time for Obama in the poll, a majority of all adults said they disapprove of his overall performance – 52 percent, up from 47 percent in June. Among Democrats, approval fell 8 points, to 74 percent from 82 percent in June. Among Republicans, it fell to 11 percent from 22 percent.
Politically, the poll underscores the difficult time ahead for Obama as he seeks re-election in a shaky economy.
Unemployment increased to 9.2 percent in July, up from 9.1 percent in June. And most economists don’t expect it to decline much below 8.5 percent by the November 2012 presidential election. No president has won re-election with a jobless rate that high since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.
So why hasn’t the rise in pessimism taken more of a toll?
Despite the general rise in gloom, it seems unlikely that liberal Democrats will flock away from Obama even if they have rising doubts about his agenda or economic leadership, analysts suggest. And independents, who helped elect Obama in 2008 and are now being actively wooed by both parties, did not exhibit significant changes in their approval levels.
It was at 44 percent, statistically no different from the 43 percent approval rating among independents in June.
“A lot is out of his hands,” said Penny Johansen, 65, a retired legal secretary from Tempe, Ariz. “There is only so much one person can do, and one person cannot be blamed for the acts of others.” Politically unaligned, she voted for Obama in 2008 and says she’ll probably do so again.
On related economic issues, 59 percent said they disapproved of Obama’s handling of tax issues, up from 53 percent in June. And 64 percent said they disapproved of his handling of the annual budget deficit, compared with 63 percent in June.
Sixty percent described the financial situation in their own households as “good,” about even with the level in June. Asked if they expected their financial situation to change over the next 12 months, 31 percent said they expected it to get better, 12 percent expected it to get worse and a majority – 56 percent – said they expected it to “stay about the same.”
As to creating jobs, some 44 percent said they would trust Democrats to do a better job, while 42 percent said Republicans would.
The AP-GfK poll was conducted Aug. 18-22 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,000 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.