WASHINGTON – The number of Americans who believe that the nation is headed in the right direction has roughly tripled since Barack Obama’s election, and the public overwhelmingly blames the excesses of the financial industry, rather than the new president, for turmoil in the economy, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
At this early stage in his presidency, Obama continues to benefit from a broadly held perception that others should bear the bulk of responsibility for the severe economic problems that confront his administration. Americans see plenty of offenders, but only about a quarter blame the president and his team for an economy that’s in the ditch.
Despite the increasing optimism about the future, the nation’s overall mood remains gloomy, and doubts are rising about some of the administration’s prescriptions for the economic woes. Independents are less solidly behind Obama than they have been, fewer Americans now express confidence that his economic programs will work, barely half of the country approves of how the president is dealing with the federal budget deficit, and the political climate is once again highly polarized.
The percentage of Americans in the new poll who said the country is on the right track still stands at just 42 percent, but that is the highest percentage saying so in five years and marks a sharp turnabout from last fall, when as many as nine in 10 said the country was heading in the wrong direction. Fifty-seven percent now consider the nation as moving on the wrong track.
Overall perceptions about the country parallel a rapid increase in the percentage of Americans who say the economy is improving. For the first time since late 2004, the gap between the numbers saying the economy is getting better and those saying it’s getting worse is in the single digits (27 percent to 36 percent).
Two-thirds of Americans approve of the way Obama is handling the country’s top job, and six in 10 give him good marks on issue No. 1, the flagging economy. Those figures are little changed from last month. But he receives lower marks for dealing with the federal budget deficit after submitting a plan that would see continued huge deficits over the next decade. Fifty-two percent back Obama on his approach to the deficit, with the public split about evenly over whether belt-tightening or big increases in spending should be used to try to improve the economy.
Obama’s overall approval rating among independents has dipped six points, to 61 percent, and fewer than half, 45 percent, said he is doing a good job of handling the deficit. His approval rating among Republicans has dropped seven points, to 30 percent.
Overall, almost two in three Americans, 64 percent, said they have confidence that Obama’s economic program will improve the economy, but that number has dropped since he took office and began to implement his own program. Before his inauguration, 72 percent were confident that his economic agenda would lead to a recovery. Now, after two months of vigorous debate about his stimulus package and ambitious budget blueprint, confidence has decreased by 13 points among independents and by a similar amount among Republicans.
The findings suggest that the public continues to give Obama considerable latitude as he attempts to jump-start the economy, but public patience may be limited.