Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Support for Stimulus Plan Slips, But Obama Rides High

92% View Obama as Good Communicator


After weeks of intense debate over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, a narrow majority of Americans (51%) who have heard about the $800 billion plan say it is a good idea, while 34% say it is a bad idea. In January, the balance of opinion regarding the plan was more positive: 57% of those who had heard about the proposal viewed it positively, compared with just 22% who viewed it negatively.

Reaction to the proposal has become much more politicized since January. The balance of opinion among Republicans, which was fairly evenly divided in January, has turned considerably more negative. More than six-in-ten Republicans (63%) who have heard about the proposal now say it is a bad idea – up 20 points in about a month. Increasing percentages of independents (up 12 points since January) and Democrats (up seven points) also see the proposal as a bad idea. Still, nearly half of independents (49%) and 70% of Democrats view the plan positively.

Notably, support for the proposal is now much lower than it was in January among those who have heard a lot about the economic stimulus. By 49% to 41%, those who have heard a lot about the proposal now see it as a good idea; in January, those who had heard a lot favored it by more than two-to-one. There has been less change among those who have heard less about the proposal.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted Feb. 4-8 among 1,303 adults reached on landlines and cell phones, finds that concerns over the stimulus proposal’s effectiveness – rather than its cost – are fuelling opposition to the plan. A large majority of those who oppose Obama’s plan (61%) say it will not be effective – including those who cite concerns about “pork” or “special interests.” By contrast, 27% specifically cite the bill’s overall price-tag or its impact on the government’s debt.

The survey finds that, after nearly a month in office, Obama’s personal image is extremely strong. Overwhelming majorities view Obama as a strong leader (77%) and trustworthy (76%), while an even higher percentage (92%) says he is a good communicator. Moreover, the belief that Obama represents a break from politics as usual is widespread, despite the highly partisan reaction to his economic stimulus proposal. About two-thirds of Americans (66%) – including a narrow majority of Republicans – say that Obama “has a new approach to politics in Washington”; that compares with 25% who say his approach is “business as usual.”

Obama’s 64% job approval rating is higher than the initial marks for his two most recent predecessors, George W. Bush (53%) and Bill Clinton (56%). Somewhat fewer Americans (56%) approve of his handling of the economy, though only about a quarter (24%) disapproves; 20% offer no opinion.

With the congressional debate over the stimulus proposal at a crucial point, the public is evenly divided over whether Obama and Republicans on Capitol Hill are working together; 45% say they are not working together while 43% say that they are. However, by nearly four-to-one (61% to 16%), those who say Obama and the Republicans are not cooperating blame Republicans, rather than Obama, for the failure to work together.

Moreover, only about a third of Americans (34%) approve of the job that Republican leaders in Congress are doing, while 51% disapprove. The balance of opinion toward Democratic congressional leaders is much more positive; 48% approve of the job that they are doing compared with 38% who disapprove.

Tax Cuts Seen as More Stimulative than Spending

Among the many provisions in the massive economic stimulus package, two have received particular attention: the overall balance between new spending and tax reductions, and a proposal to require that spending in the legislation be limited to American-made products and services.

In principle, more Americans say that tax cuts for individuals and businesses – rather than spending on programs and infrastructure projects – will do more right now to stimulate the economy and create jobs. Nearly half (48%) says that tax cuts will do more for the economy, while 39% views government spending as more effective.

As expected there is a sizable partisan gap over the best way to stimulate economic growth. Republicans by more than two-to-one (63% to 26%) see tax cuts as more effective; Democrats, by a much smaller margin (47% to 41%), say that government spending on infrastructure and other projects will be a better way to jump-start the economy.

By contrast, the idea of requiring that spending in the stimulus plan be limited to U.S.-made goods and services wins broad support across partisan lines. Two-thirds of Americans think such a requirement is a good idea because it keeps jobs in America, while just 24% see it as a bad idea because other countries might

retaliate by not buying American products and services. Wide majorities of Democrats (70%), Republicans (66%) and independents (63%) all agree that it would be a good idea for the plan to require that spending be limited to U.S.-made goods and services.

Views of Obama’s Plan

Just under half of Americans (46%) say they have heard a lot about Obama’s stimulus plan, while 45% say they have only heard a little about it and just 7% report having heard nothing at all. Those who have heard a lot about the plan express the most skepticism, with 41% saying it is a bad idea compared with 28% of those who have heard only a little. This stands in contrast to the balance of opinion a month ago, when people who had heard a lot about the plan were more likely to back it than those who had heard only a little.

Beyond the wide political division over Obama’s proposal, there also are substantial income and class differences. Just 39% of those in the top category for family income – those making $100,000 or more a year –

say the stimulus proposal is a good idea, while 47% view it negatively. The proposal draws considerably more support among those with low incomes: by wide margins, those with family incomes of less than $30,000 see the proposal as a good idea.

Similarly, while those who say they are in the professional or business class are evenly divided over the stimulus plan (43% good vs. 43% bad), majorities of those who say they are struggling (59%) or working class (52%) view it positively.

Working Together?

The public is divided over whether President Obama and Republican leaders in Congress are working together in the effort to craft an economic stimulus plan. Among those who say the White House and GOP are not working together, most blame Republican leaders rather than Obama.

More than four-in-ten (43%) say Obama and Republican leaders are working together, while a similar proportion (45%) say they are not. There is little partisan difference, with 40% of Republicans, 46% of Democrats and 44% of independents saying the White House

and GOP leaders are working together.

Among those who say the president and GOP leaders are not working effectively together to quickly craft an economic stimulus package, about six-in-ten (61%) say Republicans leaders are to blame. Just 16% blame Obama and 10% say they are both to blame.

Democrats who say the two sides are not working well together overwhelmingly blame Republican leaders; fully 86% say they are at fault. Republicans are more divided, with 40% blaming Obama and 26% blaming their party’s congressional leaders; 15% of Republicans say both sides are to blame. Most independents who say Obama and Republican leaders are not working well together blame GOP leaders (62%), compared with 14% who blame Obama and 12% who blame both sides.

Job Approval Ratings

Nearly two-thirds of Americans (64%) say that they approve of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as president, while just 17% disapprove. This represents a substantially better initial job approval rating than either of his immediate predecessors. In the Pew Research Center’s February 2001 survey, George W. Bush received a 53% approval rating, while Clinton garnered a 56% rating at the same point in 1993.

By contrast, just over half of Americans (51%) disapprove of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing, while barely a third (34%) approve. This is almost identical to the public’s rating of Republicans in Congress on the eve of the 2006 midterm election in which the GOP lost their majorities in both the House and the Senate. In October 2006, 33% approved and 56% disapproved of their performance.

Republicans themselves are not overwhelmingly supportive of their party’s congressional leaders at this point. Just 55% of Republicans say they approve of the job the party’s congressional leaders are doing, while 33% disapprove. This is down 15 points from a 70% approval rating among Republicans in October 2006.

By comparison, more Americans approve (48%) than disapprove (38%) of the job Democratic leaders in Congress are doing. This represents a substantial improvement from last summer, when just 31% approved and 58% disapproved of their performance. The jump in approval comes mostly from Democrats. Today 76% of Democrats like the job their party’s leaders in Congress are doing, up from 53% in August 2008.

Obama receives somewhat lower ratings for the way he is handling the economy than he does for his handling of his job as president overall. Still, a majority of Americans (56%) approve of the way Obama is handling the economy, while just 24% disapprove (another 20% offer no opinion.)

Fully three-quarters of Democrats (75%) give Obama high marks for the way he is handling the economy, but even more (88%) approve of the job he is doing overall. And while a majority of independents (54%) approve of Obama’s handling of the economy, this is slightly less than the 63% who approve of his job performance overall. Republicans offer low marks on both accounts; only 34% approve of Obama’s handling of the economy and the same percentage approves of his overall performance as president so far.

One-Word Impressions

The public’s impression of Barack Obama has changed substantially since the presidential campaign. When asked for a one-word description of Barack Obama, more are using words like intelligent, honest, confident and smart, and fewer are using words like inexperienced, change, young and new.

In the current survey, the terms intelligent or intellectual come up the most frequently, mentioned by 33 of the 660 people asked this question. This is followed by change (17 people) and honest (16).

By contrast, the most frequently cited word during the campaign was inexperienced, mentioned by 55 of the 629 registered voters interviewed in September. Currently, 15 people mention the word inexperienced. Change was the second most widely used word in September, mentioned by 36 people; it remains the second most commonly used word, though only 17 people mention it today. In September, 20 people used the term young or youthful to describe Obama; just five people used one of these words in the current survey.

There are a number of words that appear in the list of one-word impressions of Barack Obama today that were absent or rare in September. Confident, smart, great, determined and sincere are all among the top 20 words used to describe the president. None of these words was mentioned by four or more people in the September pre-election survey.

Impressions of President Obama

Despite some setbacks in his first few weeks in office, Obama’s personal image is very positive. Compared with his two most recent predecessors early in their administrations, Obama matches or surpasses both for being trustworthy, well-informed and warm and friendly.

The president’s top rating is as a communicator: 92% say he is a good communicator, even more than said this about Bill Clinton in January 1993 (84%). Nearly as many (87%) see Obama as warm and friendly, considerably more than the 67% who said this about George W. Bush in February 2001 and about the same number who said this about Clinton in early 1993 (90%).

Wide majorities also say Obama impresses them as well-organized (81%), caring about people like themselves (81%), well-informed (79%), a strong leader (77%), and trustworthy (76%). Although Republicans are less likely than Democrats and independents to assign each of these positive traits to Obama, more than half do so.

Seven-in-ten Americans (70%) say Obama is able to get things done. Again, Republicans are not as positive as Democrats or independents about Obama, but even on this measure, nearly half of Republicans (48%) say he is able to get things done while 33% say he is not.

A New Approach to Politics?

From the beginning of his presidential campaign, Obama stressed that he would take a different approach to politics in Washington, promising both a change in ethical standards and a more bipartisan effort in making policy. When asked to choose whether the president’s approach to politics is a new one or is “business as usual,” two-thirds (66%) say he has a new approach.

The perception that Obama is taking a new approach is widespread. Even a small majority of Republicans (51%) thinks he has a new approach, while 40% say he does not. Within the ranks of Republicans, conservative members of the party are split about evenly on this question (44% say he has a new approach, 46% say he does not). But nearly two-thirds of moderate and liberal Republicans (65%) see the president as taking a new approach. An identical 65% of independents agree, as do 80% of Democrats.

Obama also gets good marks for his approach from a reliably Republican group that he has courted – white evangelical Protestants. Nearly two-thirds of evangelicals (64%) say Obama is taking a new approach to politics in Washington; just 27% say it’s business as usual.

Overall, about as many Americans describe Barack Obama as “middle of the road” (40%) as say he is liberal (38%), while just 13% describe him as conservative. The balance of opinion about George W. Bush eight years ago was similar – roughly equal proportions thought of him as middle of the road (39%) and conservative (44%), with very few (7%) describing him as liberal.

Most Republicans (58%) see Obama as liberal, and conservative Republicans are especially likely to say this (70%). A plurality of both Democrats (46%) and independents (47%) describe Obama as middle of the road.

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