WASHINGTON — Public pessimism about the direction of the country has jumped to its highest level in nearly three years, erasing the sense of hope that followed President Barack Obama’s inauguration and pushing his approval ratings to a record low, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
More than 60 percent of those surveyed say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the economy and, what has become issue No. 1, the stagnant jobs situation. Just 43 percent now approve of the job he is doing overall, a new career low; 53 percent disapprove, a new high.
As part of a reinvigorated effort to regain momentum as he heads toward the 2012 election year, Obama traveled to Detroit on Monday for a Labor Day appearance that served as a prelude to his speech Thursday to a joint session of Congress in which he will announce new proposals to create jobs.
The urgency for Obama to act is driven not just by the most recent unemployment report, which on Friday showed no job growth in August and the unemployment rate stuck at 9.1 percent, but also by the depth of the political hole in which the president finds himself. Even more than two-thirds of those who voted for Obama say things are badly off course.
By this time in their presidencies, approval ratings for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton — who also suffered serious midterm setbacks during their first terms — had settled safely above the 50 percent mark. Both then stayed in positive territory throughout their re-election campaigns.
When ratings for George W. Bush slipped into the low 40s during his second term in office, they remained there or lower for the remainder of his presidency.
Obama does, however, rate better than do congressional Republicans, his adversaries in recent, fierce confrontations on federal spending. Just 28 percent approve of the way Republicans in Congress are doing their job, and 68 percent disapprove, the worst spread for the GOP since summer 2008.
When it comes to head-to-head match-ups on big economic issues, the public is deeply — and evenly — divided between Obama and congressional Republicans. Four in 10 side with Obama and the GOP on jobs. There are similarly even splits on the economy generally and on the deficit. In all three areas, the percentages of Americans trusting “neither” are at new highs.
Nonetheless, current trends are highly unfavorable for the president. By 2 to 1, more Americans now say the administration’s economic policies are making the economy worse rather than better. The number who say those policies have helped has been chopped in half since the start of the year. The percentage of Americans disapproving of how Obama is doing when it comes to creating jobs spiked 10 percentage points higher since July.
Of the more than six in 10 who now disapprove of Obama’s work on jobs and the economy, nearly half of all Americans “strongly” disapprove.
On the deficit, which was at the heart of the pitched battle over the debt ceiling earlier this summer, Obama has reaped no dividends for trying to produce a compromise agreement with Republicans. Six in 10 disapprove of Obama’s work on the federal budget deficit, a percentage that is relatively unmoved in recent surveys and basically where it was a year ago.
Similarly, there has been little change in the widespread public perception that Obama favors a bigger federal government that offers more services.
That highlights a major disconnect between Obama and the public. Only 38 percent of those polled say they favor a larger government with more services, while 56 percent say they favor a smaller government with fewer services.
Things are also bad for Obama when Americans are asked a version of the famous “Are you better off today?” question that Reagan used to bludgeon Jimmy Carter on his way to defeating the Democratic president in 1980. By better than 2 to 1, more say they are not as well off financially as they were at the start of Obama’s term.
This politically sensitive indicator is about where it was for President George H.W. Bush at the end of 1991, and those numbers moved little the next year, when Bush lost his re-election bid to Clinton.
Despite the negative economic news, many Americans remain optimistic. While 50 percent are pessimistic about the jobs situation in the coming year, nearly as many, 45 percent, say they are optimistic.
But the limited optimism on jobs is undercut by swiftly fading confidence in the country’s trajectory. In the new poll, just 20 percent of Americans say things are going in the right direction, lower than a year ago and the lowest percentage saying so since January 2009, just before Obama took the oath of office.
The sense of deflation is particularly apparent among Democrats, with nearly two-thirds saying things are pretty seriously on the wrong track. The percentage of Democrats saying things are headed in the right direction has cratered from 60 percent at the start of the year to 32 percent now.
Among political independents — a prime target of Obama’s new outreach — 78 percent see the country as off-kilter. The percentage saying so in January 2009 was 79 percent. Pessimism was even higher among independents — and everyone else — during the depth of the financial crisis in late 2008. But for Obama, things are back to square one.
Obama’s overall approval rating is down 11 percentage points from the start of the year. The only other time a majority disapproved of his handling of the presidency in Post-ABC polling was a year ago after another rough summer.
For the first time, fewer than half of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 give the president positive marks. Young voters broke overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008, but 47 percent of those under age 30 now approve of the way he is doing his job; just as many disapprove.
Fewer than three-quarters of Democrats approve of the president; his disapproval rating among independents ties its high from a year ago at 57 percent.
One area where the president continues to score high ratings is on his handling of the threat of terrorism. Here, 62 percent of all Americans approve; 32 percent disapprove.
The telephone poll of 1,001 randomly selected adults was conducted Aug. 29 to Sept. 1. Results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.