WASHINGTON — The afterglow of President Barack Obama’s re-election and inauguration appears to have vanished as increasingly negative views among Americans about his stewardship of the economy have forced his public approval rating back down to the 50 percent mark, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
In December, just after he won a second term, Obama held an 18-percentage-point advantage over congressional Republicans on the question of whom the public trusted more to deal with the economy. Now, it’s a far more even split — 44 percent to 40 percent, with a slight edge for the president — but the share of those saying they have confidence in “neither” has ticked up into double digits.
The poll contains ample evidence of the disillusionment voters feel toward both sides amid a sense of continuing dysfunction in Washington, which since December has been grappling with fiscal crises and deadlines of its own making.
Almost two weeks into the automatic across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester, a slim majority of Americans disapprove of the reductions. At the same time, nearly three-quarters say they are feeling no impact on their lives, and fewer than half expect a toll on their family finances if the cuts continue.
Still, large majorities expect that the sequester will eventually damage the economy, the military and the government’s ability to provide basic services. Most, 68 percent, say they would like the two sides to work together to come up with a deal to stop the cuts. The desire for cooperation is widely shared across party lines.
Asked who is responsible for the sequester, 47 percent say Republicans in Congress and 33 percent say Obama.
The poll suggests a closer divide on which side the public trusts in the battles over issues such as immigration and gun control — closer, perhaps, than the public’s policy preferences would indicate. Americans largely support the administration’s stand on new measures to curb gun violence, but on basic trust on the issue, the president and Republicans in Congress fare about evenly.
Obama’s overall job-approval rating stands at 50 percent, down five points from before he took the oath of office in January. Looking along partisan lines, the slippage since then has been particularly pronounced among political independents. Two months ago, independents tilted clearly in his direction, with 54 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving. Now, half of independents express a negative opinion of the president’s performance; just 44 percent approve.
The president has also seen an erosion in confidence among groups that he has counted as core supporters. Compared with a Post-ABC poll in December, the share of liberals who place their faith in Obama over Republicans when it comes to dealing with the economy is 14 points lower; there has been a 12-point slide among women.
At 50 percent, Obama’s overall standing in the poll is lower than that of most other modern second-term presidents at this point in their terms. Of the seven second-term presidents who have been in office since Harry S. Truman, only George W. Bush had a positive rating as low as 50 percent at this stage.
Obama and Bush share another similarity, one that describes what is arguably the most potent force shaping political decision-making in recent years: a deeply divided electorate. Among post-World War II presidents, Bush and Obama are the only ones to have led a nation as politically polarized as it is today. In both cases, there is a gap of more than 70 points between Democratic and Republican assessments of the president.
Congress remains far lower than the president in public esteem, with only 16 percent approving of its performance and 80 percent disapproving. That negative feeling extends to both parties, with congressional Democrats registering a ratio of 34 percent favorable to 62 percent unfavorable sentiment; Republicans are lower still, at 24 to 72.
The poll was conducted March 7 to 10 among a random sample of 1,001 adults. The full survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
At a moment when the statistics — a booming stock market and surprising new strength in the job market — suggest a more vigorous economy, many Americans are not themselves seeing progress.
Barely more than half of those surveyed say the economy has started its recovery. And after a brief foray into neutral territory, most Americans again give Obama negative marks on handling the economy. The personal assessments of the economy’s trajectory relate directly to Obama’s overall rating: Seventy-three percent of those who say they sense economic growth approve of the way the president is doing his job, and an identical 73 percent of those who don’t see a recovering economy disapprove of his performance in office.
As they do on the economy, the president and the Republican opposition have rough parity on the question of who is better positioned on gun control, with Obama the choice of 42 percent and congressional Republicans, 41 percent.
On immigration, Obama has a six-point advantage, with 45 percent saying they trust him more and 39 percent expressing greater confidence in the Republicans’ approach. The margin may be surprisingly slender, given big majority support for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and strong Latino support for Obama in the November election.
Nor does the election seem to have produced a lasting consensus on which side is better equipped to figure out what government spending should be cut and what services preserved. When it comes to finding the right balance, 44 percent side with Republicans and 43 percent with the president.
The poll also confirms one of the political verities of deficit reduction: People may want to see an end to red ink, but there is rarely public support for reductions in popular social programs to achieve it.
Asked about alternatives to the automatic cuts now in place, 71 percent reject a reduction in Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor, and 60 percent oppose raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.
There is broader but still limited support for slicing business tax deductions. Most, 56 percent, say they back limiting tax deductions for high-income earners as part of a path out of the sequester. Tax reform is often considered a quid pro quo for reining in entitlement spending, which is a long-term driver of deficit spending.
A Post-ABC News poll last week found broad opposition to the across-the-board cuts to the military that started March 1 with the sequester, but there is majority support in the new survey for more targeted defense cuts.
Cohen is director of polling for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Capital Insight pollsters Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement contributed to this report.