WASHINGTON – Thumbs up for President Barack Obama's personality. Thumbs down for his progress.
An overwhelming majority of Americans like Obama, but most say he hasn't accomplished much on two top goals — fixing the sluggish economy and changing how Washington works, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll midway through the first term of his presidency.
Half of those surveyed say he deserves a second term, and independents, whose support will be critical in 2012, are evenly divided on that question. Obama is getting the benefit of the doubt despite concerns about his policies, a reflection based in large part on his likability.
"He's doing a pretty good job," says Alan Bliven, 54, of Tucson, Ariz. "I'm not all sold on him," but the president's performance is good enough that he should be re-elected.
Joanne Abbott, 46, of Sebring, Fla., disagrees.
"I don't dislike Obama. I like him as a person," she says, but adds, "I don't think he's accomplished much.- . . . I wish the economy would come back."
The AP-GfK poll is a snapshot in time, and plenty could happen between now and November 2012, including an economic upturn that could cut the 9.4 percent unemployment rate. But, in a polarized nation, the findings portend a competitive presidential race no matter who the GOP candidate is.
Although beating an incumbent is tough, Republicans sense an opening, given the sluggish economic recovery and Obama's acknowledged failure to fulfill his promise of doing business differently in a partisan Washington.
Overall, 53 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is governing, putting him roughly in the middle when compared with his modern-day successors halfway through their first terms.
Almost as many people rate Obama's presidency below average (34 percent) as call it above average (38 percent). Forty-one percent overall — and 30 percent among independents — say he understands the important issues the nation will face the next two years. Only 26 percent say he's kept most of his campaign promises.
Americans diverge over whether Obama's prescriptions are best.
"He's too much of a socialist, he wants too big of a government, and he shouldn't get re-elected," said 72-year-old Tom Wilkinson of Sparland, Ill. "I'm sick and tired of Chicago politics, and I think that's where he comes out of."
Art Winstanley, 58, of Key West, Fla., says Obama deserves more time. "Some things he's done are taking time to kick in with the public. He's got two years before people go `Holy smoke, this guy did a lot of good stuff!'"
Despite his lukewarm policy marks, Obama has an enormous advantage because of how people see him personally; a whopping 83 percent call him likable, and 59 percent view him favorably. Majorities also consider him empathetic (63 percent), a strong leader (62 percent), and in-touch with ordinary Americans (61 percent).
The numbers are similar to the ones President Ronald Reagan faced before winning a second term in 1984.
Still, the AP-GfK poll shows areas of vulnerability as Obama governs and campaigns:
- More than half disapprove of how he's handled the economy. Just 35 percent say it's improved on his watch; 40 percent said that a year ago. It's driven largely by lower-income people as well as those in the Northeast and the West who are losing faith in Obama's ability to orchestrate a turnaround. Three-quarters do say it's unrealistic to expect noticeable improvements after two years; they say it will take longer.
- Roughly a third — 34 percent — say Obama hasn't lived up to his promise of change, an increase from 27 percent last January. More Democrats argue he's kept that pledge, while more Republicans say he's broken it. Overall, 42 percent say it's too soon to tell. People are split over his pace of change: 36 percent say too much, too quickly, 32 percent say it's about right, 31 percent say he's not moving fast enough. More independents want to see Obama move quicker than not.
- Fifty-one percent of independents approve of his job performance, an uptick since November as Obama reached out to Republicans — and compromised with them on taxes — in a new era of divided government. But just 30 percent score his presidency above average or better, a slippage from 37 percent a year ago. And independents divide about evenly on whether he deserves to be re-elected: 46 percent say yes, 43 percent no. He still has trouble with support among men and whites; they are more apt than women and nonwhites to want him fired.
- Despite vocal complaints from the left, the poll shows evidence that Obama's base isn't nearly as fractured as it has seemed. Democrats overwhelmingly give him high marks. Liberal Democrats are more likely to call Obama's presidency outstanding or above average than even moderate Democrats. And there's no difference between the two groups over whether Obama should face a primary challenge; majorities of both groups say no. It's largely a moot point as no serious challenger has emerged.
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted Jan. 5-10 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
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