WASHINGTON — For much of his first year in office, President Barack Obama has largely defied political gravity in the midst of skyrocketing unemployment, an ambitious legislative agenda and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His approval rating remained above 50 percent, a plurality viewed his party positively, and even the number believing the country was on the right track — despite the bad news — temporarily spiked during his first few months on the job.
But now nearing the end of his first year in office, the economy, the wars and the legislative skirmishes finally have taken a toll on the president and his party, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
For the first time, Obama’s overall job approval rating has fallen below 50 percent (to 47 percent). In addition, for the first time since Sept. 2007, a plurality (45 percent) sees the Democratic Party in a negative light. And the percentage believing the country is on the wrong track (55 percent) is at its highest level in the Obama presidency.
“This survey underscores what I consider a dramatic and unmistakable change in the political landscape,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with GOP pollster Bill McInturff. “For Democrats, the red flags are flying at full mast.”
“The sagging economy is beginning to drag him down,” McInturff added. “This is increasingly becoming President Obama’s economy.”
Deep dissatisfaction with nation's direction
Underlining the entire poll is a deep dissatisfaction with the current state of the country. Only 33 percent believe the nation is headed in the right direction — an eight-point drop since Obama took office.
(By comparison, however, the right track number hovered between 10 percent and 20 percent during George W. Bush’s final months in office.)
What’s more, six in 10 say the country is in a state of decline, and a whopping two-thirds say they’re not confident that life for their children’s generation will be better than it was for them.
“All of this says that optimism has crashed through the floor board,” Hart observed.
Yet there is some optimism for next year: 46 percent say that 2010 will be a better year than 2009, 27 percent say it will be about the same and 25 percent say it will be worse.
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Taking it out on Democrats and Republicans
The public’s frustration with the direction of the country has rubbed off on both Democrats and Republicans.
In addition to Obama’s job approval rating at 47 percent, fewer than four in 10 say they are confident he has the right set of goals and policies, which is down 15 points since his election.
And only one-third have confidence the president has the right goals and priorities to improve the economy, down 13 points since June.
What’s more, while Obama holds an overall 50 percent to 37 percent positive/negative rating in the poll, the number with a “very positive” view of him dropped from 36 percent in October to 29 percent this month.
Despite these lower numbers, the president remains the most popular American politician in the survey. Just 32 percent have a positive view of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, compared with 40 percent who see her in a negative light.
The entire Republican Party, moreover, continues to maintain a net-negative favorable/unfavorable rating, 28 percent to 43 percent.
But, for the first time in more than two years, the Democratic Party also now holds a net-negative rating, 35 percent to 45 percent.
By comparison, the conservative libertarian-leaning Tea Party movement has a net-positive 41 percent to 23 percent score in the poll.
Further demonstrating a disappointment with Democrats and Republicans in Washington, an overwhelming 81 percent believe that the past year in Congress has been marked by division and a lack of willingness to compromise.
Compare that with a majority (52 percent) who thought — immediately after Obama’s presidential victory — that unity would prevail in 2009.
Afghanistan support surges
Perhaps the best news in the poll for Obama comes on the subject of Afghanistan. Fifty-five percent say they support increasing the U.S. troop levels in that country. That’s an eight-point jump since October, and it comes after Obama’s primetime address to the country on his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.
“He clearly changed the climate in regards to troop support,” said McInturff, the GOP pollster.
That said, the public remains skeptical about the eventual outcome in Afghanistan. According to the poll, 58 percent are less confident that the war there will come to a successful conclusion, which is virtually unchanged from September’s NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey.
What’s more, only 39 percent believe that U.S. troops will begin to withdraw from there by Obama’s stated goal of July 2011.
“The way to characterize this data is ‘watchful waiting,’” McInturff added. “People are kind of waiting to see what’s going to happen.”
Public sours on health care
As for health care, the poll — which was taken Dec. 11-14 of 1,008 adults, and which has a margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — finds that those believing Obama's health-reform plan is a good idea has sunk to its lowest level.
Just 32 percent say it's a good idea, versus 47 percent who say it's a bad idea.
In addition, for the first time in the survey, a plurality prefers the status quo to reform. By a 44 percent to 41 percent margin, respondents say that it would be better to keep the current system than to pass Obama's health plan.
By comparison, in both September's and October's NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls, the American public preferred changing the system to the status quo, 45 percent to 39 percent.
“This is the survey where the wheels came off the bus” on health care, McInturff said.
He added that the long, protracted congressional debate over health care has contributed to this declining support, because the public either believes the lengthy process means the legislation is flawed or that it won’t get enacted.
Most disappointing figure?
Finally, when the poll asked respondents which public figure disappointed them more, a plurality (33 percent) cited John Edwards for the affair he had while his wife was battling cancer.
Sixteen percent answered golfer Tiger Woods for his extramarital affairs; 15 percent said singer Chris Brown for hitting and abusing his girlfriend, Rihanna; 11 percent cited the parents of the infamous “Balloon Boy”; 6 percent mentioned the reality show couple Jon and Kate for their divorce; 4 percent said talk-show host David Letterman for the affairs he had with women who worked for him; and another 4 percent cited baseball star Alex Rodriguez for using a banned substance.
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Ali Weinberg contributed to this article.
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