Poll: Country in a funk
Elected last November on a wave of optimism, President Barack Obama now finds himself governing an increasingly pessimistic country in recession while muscling through Congress a health care reform overhaul and weighing more troops for the 8-year-old Afghanistan war.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll shows that Americans grew slightly more dispirited on a range of matters over the past month, continuing 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 this novice 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, Mo., 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 look to stave off losses a new president typically experiences in his first midterms. 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 in cautiousness for out-of-power Republicans salivating at the murky state of the electorate and 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 en 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 what it was in January just before he took office, 74 percent. 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 most 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 most don't approve of how Obama is handling it — just 46 percent approve 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, Tenn., 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."
America 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 people in the country opposes 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 Minnesota's Twin Cities, 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 reform 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 November 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.