WASHINGTON – Increasingly troubled by the economy, more Americans are convinced the country is headed in the wrong direction and fewer approve of President Barack Obama's economic stewardship. The sentiments pose a new complication for the president's re-election hopes and create an obstacle to a recovery that relies in part on public perceptions.
For the first time this year, less than 50 percent of respondents to an Associated Press-GfK poll say Obama deserves re-election. The new poll shows a virtual split of 48-47 in favor, raising a new hurdle for the president as economic concerns strip away the gloss he briefly gained in May after the death of Osama bin Laden.
What's more, four out of five now believe the economy is in poor shape, with 36 percent calling it "very poor," a new high in AP-GfK polling.
The survey findings track with recent independent data that show a dip in consumer confidence, and they reflect the May uptick in unemployment and a stubbornly depressed housing market. Amid anemic hiring, high gas prices and financial turmoil in Europe, Americans are increasingly interested in saving — not spending — their money, adding yet another constraint to the economic recovery.
Yet, 16 months before the November 2012 elections, Obama also is perceived favorably by 56 percent of respondents and 52 percent approve of his job performance overall. Despite the overwhelming sentiment that the national economy is in poor shape, more than three of five of those polled rated the financial situation of their own households as good. And, echoing previous findings, about three-quarters of the survey participants said it is unrealistic to expect noticeable results on the economy in one term.
For Obama, the poll results are a mixed appraisal. In many ways they show him returning to the public ratings he faced before bin Laden's death created a spike of approval. As such, they indicate a certain resilience — an ability to hold steady even as economic indicators worsen.
But the new AP-GfK poll also reveals trouble spots for Obama.
It shows a sharp spike in concern about unemployment. Overall, 86 percent call it extremely or very important, the highest level since just before the 2010 elections. Nearly four in 10 expect there to be an increase in the number of people unemployed in the country over the next year, while just 23 percent say they expect unemployment to drop. In previous AP-GfK polling, those figures had been about even.
Obama has hit new unwelcome highs — in public disapproval over his handling of the economy in general and unemployment in particular — according to the poll. In addition, more disapprove of his handling of health care and the federal budget deficit than in the past.
The erosion of approval is primarily among women. Last month, 57 percent said they felt he deserved re-election, a figure that dipped to 48 percent this month. The decline came almost entirely among white women, just 37 percent of whom say Obama deserves re-election in the new poll. He also lost support among self-described independents, from 62 percent approval last month to 43 percent now, his lowest since June 2010.
With the economy clearly looming as the top political issue in his re-election, the president has been traveling every week for months to campaign battleground states to promote job initiatives. He acknowledges the sluggishness of the recovery, illustrated by May's uptick in unemployment.
The price of gasoline at the pump has declined a bit recently though it is still nearly 90 cents higher on average than a year ago. White House officials are also monitoring the precarious fiscal situation in Greece, where a default by the government could send damaging financial tremors across world markets.
"I just think that he's not doing his job the way he should be," said Mary Perrine, a grandmother of three from West Lafayette, Ind., who said she has struggled to pay her bills.
Obama faced 59 percent disapproval on his handling of the economy and on unemployment. The steepest decrease was among respondents with incomes above $50,000. In May, 53 percent approved of his efforts to fight unemployment; in June, 36 percent approved.
"I kind of sit on the fence about it," Paul Fenger, a Cottonwood, Minn., farmer said about Obama's job performance.
"I think he is trying to do a good job, but the information isn't getting out, and Congress — the Republicans and Democrats — aren't working together."
Obama may have to count on the likes of John Holdnak, a Florida Department of Education administrator, who didn't vote for him in 2008 but believes "he has really stepped up to do this job."
Does Obama deserve re-election? "I don't know yet. A lot of things can happen now and between the election that could be his fault. At this particular juncture, he hasn't done anything in my mind not to be re-elected," said Holdnak, one of the survey participants.
The poll was conducted June 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.
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