WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama still has the public approval of a majority of Americans, but he finds himself governing an increasingly pessimistic country.
This comes at a time when he is trying to revive a struggling economy, weighing more troops for the 8-year-old Afghanistan war, muscling a health care reform overhaul through Congress and hoping to push through other ambitious measures like legislation focused on climate change.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll shows that Americans grew slightly more dispirited on a range of matters over the past month, continuing the slippage that has occurred since Obama took office.
People were more pessimistic about the direction of the country than in October. They disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy a bit more than before. And, perhaps most striking for the commander in chief, more people have lost confidence in Obama on Iraq and Afghanistan over the last month. Overall, there’s a malaise about the state of the nation.
“It’s in pretty bad shape,” said truck driver Floyd Hacker of Granby, Missouri, a Democrat who voted for Obama. “He sounded like somebody who could make things happen. I still think he can.”
Still, Hacker said, he questions the president’s approach to the economy, what the U.S. is trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and Obama’s focus on health care, adding, “He can’t handle everything at one time.”
Public attitudes like that are troubling for a president trying to accomplish an ambitious agenda at home while fighting wars abroad, as well as for a Democratic Party heading into a critical election year. It will have to stave off losses that a new president typically experiences in his first midterm elections. A third of the Senate, all of the House and most governors’ offices will be on the ballot.
The findings underscore just how quickly the political environment can change, a lesson for out-of-power Republicans who are buzzing with energy after booting Democrats from rule in Virginia and New Jersey governors’ races last week.
It was just over a year ago that Obama won the White House in an electoral landslide and Democrats padded their congressional majorities. The country was riding high with optimism by just about all measures when Obama took office in January.
Hope and change were in vogue back then. But change didn’t happen overnight, as the rhetoric of campaigning crashed headlong into the realities of governing. And hope slipped in a country that always has clung to it.
Now, Obama’s approval rating stands at 54 percent, roughly the same as in October but very different from the enthusiastic 74 percent in January just before he took office. And some 56 percent of people say the country is heading in the wrong direction, an uptick from 51 percent last month and 49 percent in Obama’s first month as president.
The economy is by far the most important issue on Americans’ minds. Unemployment hit 10.2 percent last month even though the administration has promoted glimmers of improvement and many economists say the recession is over.
Those jobless figures help explain why as many people said the economy got worse in the past month as said it got better — and it’s not many people who thought it got better, just 22 percent. Most say the economy stayed the same, and just 46 percent approve of how Obama is handling the economy, compared with 50 percent last month.
“He did good on getting Wall Street up and running. But I’m not going,” said independent Jay Huffaker, 33, of Knoxville, Tennessee, a construction worker who has been unemployed for a year and a half. The country is in terrible shape, he said, adding, “It seems like it’s getting worse and worse and worse and worse.”
The nation also has grown more lukewarm on Obama and the wars as he tries to wind down the one in Iraq and considers ramping up the one in Afghanistan.
Compared with October, 45 percent of people now disapprove of Obama’s handling of Iraq, up from 37 percent; while 48 percent now disapprove of his handling of Afghanistan, up from 41 percent. A majority of Americans oppose both wars. And more than half — 54 percent — now oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, an increase from 50 percent last month.
“We either need to do something to win the wars, or just come home,” said Republican Heather Johannessen, a stay-at-home mom in the suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, who thinks the U.S. is in a holding pattern in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
On health care, about half of the country approves of how Obama is doing on his signature domestic issue — virtually unchanged from October. In a major victory for Obama, the House passed a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. medical system over the weekend. But the fate of the measure is uncertain in the Senate, where moderate Democrats who are necessary for passage are balking at the cost and various provisions.
Only a third of the country approves of how Congress is doing.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Nov. 5-9 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,006 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.