WASHINGTON — The hope and optimism that washed over the U.S. in the opening months of Barack Obama's presidency are giving way to harsh realities.
An Associated Press-GfK Poll shows that a majority of Americans are back to thinking that the country is headed in the wrong direction after a fleeting period in which more thought it was on the right track.
Obama still has a solid 55 percent approval rating — better than Bill Clinton and about even with George W. Bush six months into their presidencies — but there are growing doubts about whether he can succeed at some of the biggest items on his to-do list. And there is a growing sense that he is trying to tackle too much too soon.
The number of people who think Obama can improve the economy is down a sobering 19 percentage points from the euphoric days just before his inauguration. The same for expectations about creating jobs. Also down significantly: the share of people who think he can reduce the deficit, remove troops from Iraq and improve respect for the U.S. around the world, all slipping 15 points.
On overhauling health care, a signature issue for Obama, hopes for success are down a lesser 6 points.
Add it all up, and does it mean Obama has lost his mojo? Has yes-we-can morphed into maybe?
‘He's not Superman, right?’
"I think it's just reality," said Sandy Smith, a 48-year-old public relations worker. "He's not Superman, right?"
Indeed, it's not unusual for approval ratings to slide once presidents actually get to work. They're pulled down by things going on in the real world, by people who don't agree with the ways they're addressing problems, by criticism from political opponents.
In Obama's case, the problems he's confronting domestically and internationally are legion, and his ability to blame them on his predecessor is fading. Challenges still abound in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unemployment, at 7.6 percent in January, hit 9.5 percent in June and is expected to keep rising well into next year. Almost 4 percent of homeowners with mortgages are in foreclosure, and an additional 8 percent are at least a month behind on payments — the highest levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The president is deep into the debate over how to overhaul the U.S. health care system, and people are nervous about how their own health insurance could be affected. Obama's critics are accusing him of conducting a risky "grand experiment" that will hurt the economy and could force millions to drop their current coverage.
It is all taking a toll on expectations. The number of people who think it is realistic to expect at least some noticeable improvement in the economy during Obama's first year in office dropped from 27 percent in January to 16 percent in the latest survey.
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There's been slippage, as well, in how people view the president personally, although he is still well regarded. About two-thirds now think he understands the problems of ordinary Americans, down from 81 percent in January. Sixty-nine percent think he's a strong leader, off from 78 percent before the inauguration.
"He doesn't know enough about any of this," says Michelle Kelsey, a 37-year-old student, who gives Obama a three for leadership on a 10-point scale. But then again, Kelsey says, "Nobody could have done better."
"I just feel like people haven't given him enough time. It's going to take longer for the economy to come around."
It's not just Obama who is feeling the drag. Approval of Congress — already low — has gotten lower, slipping 6 percentage points to 32 percent.
Overall, the number of people who think the country is going in the wrong direction hit 54 percent in the latest AP-GfK poll, up from 46 percent in June.
That is not necessarily surprising. In years past, the public has tended to be more pessimistic than optimistic about the country's future. Recent exceptions have been short-lived, at the start of the Iraq war, after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, after the capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and late in the Clinton administration.
Perhaps most troubling for Obama may be where he is losing ground. His approval rating was down 9 points among Americans overall but 20 percent among independents. Similarly, the increase in those who think the country is headed in the wrong direction came mostly from independents and Democrats.
Dissatisfaction among independents grew disproportionately on Obama's handling of a range of issues, including the economy, taxes, unemployment, the environment and more.
Independents are "the ones to watch," according to Professor Robert Shapiro, a Columbia University expert on public opinion. "The Republicans were more pessimistic from the outset. The Democrats are going to be more resistant to negative information."
Overall, Obama still can feel good about a 55 percent approval rating, Shapiro said, but "the fact that it is on the downswing is something to be concerned about. That's going to affect how members of Congress, and in particular people in his own party, may respond to him."
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 16-20 by GfK Roper Public Affairs & Media. It involved interviews on landlines and cell phones with 1,006 adults nationwide. The survey had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
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