President-elect Barack Obama is riding a powerful wave of optimism into the White House, with Americans confident he can turn the economy around but prepared to give him years to deal with the crush of problems he faces starting Tuesday, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll.
While hopes for the new president are extraordinarily high, the poll found, expectations for what Mr. Obama will actually be able to accomplish appear to have been tempered by the scale of the nation’s problems at home and abroad.
The findings suggest that Mr. Obama has achieved some success with his effort — which began with his victory speech in Chicago in November — to gird Americans for a slow economic recovery and difficult years ahead after a campaign that generated striking enthusiasm and high hopes for change.
Most Americans said they did not expect real progress in improving the economy, reforming the health care system or ending the war in Iraq — three of the central promises of Mr. Obama’s campaign — for at least two years. The poll found that two-thirds of respondents think the recession will last two years or longer.
As the nation prepares for a transfer of power and the inauguration of its 44th president, Mr. Obama’s stature with the American public stands in sharp contrast to that of President Bush.
Mr. Bush is leaving office with just 22 percent of Americans offering a favorable view of how he handled the eight years of his presidency, a record low, and firmly identified with the economic crisis Mr. Obama is inheriting. More than 80 percent of respondents said the nation was in worse shape today than it was five years ago.
By contrast, 79 percent were optimistic about the next four years under Mr. Obama, a level of good will for a new chief executive that exceeds that measured for any of the past five incoming presidents. And it cuts across party lines: 58 percent of the respondents who said they voted for Mr. Obama’s opponent in the general election, Senator John McCain of Arizona, said they were optimistic about the country in an Obama administration.
“Obama is not a miracle worker, but I am very optimistic, I really am,” Phyllis Harden, 63, an independent from Easley, S.C., who voted for Mr. Obama, said in an interview after participating in the poll. Ms. Harden added: “It’s going to take a couple of years at least to improve the economy. I think anyone who is looking for a 90-day turnaround is delusional.”
Politically, Mr. Obama enjoys a strong foundation of support as he enters what is surely to be a tough and challenging period, working with Congress to swiftly pass a huge and complicated economic package.
His favorable rating, at 60 percent, is the highest it has been since the Times/CBS News poll began asking about him. Overwhelming majorities say they think that Mr. Obama will be a good president, that he will bring real change to Washington, and that he will make the right decisions on the economy, Iraq, dealing with the war in the Middle East and protecting the country from terrorist attacks. Over 70 percent said they approved of his cabinet selections.
What is more, his effort to use this interregnum between Election Day and Inauguration Day to present himself as a political moderate (he might use the word “pragmatist”) appears to be working. In this latest poll, 40 percent described his ideology as liberal, a 17-point drop from just before the election.
“I think those of us who voted for McCain are going to be a lot happier with Obama than the people who voted for him,” Valerie Schlink, 46, a Republican from Valparaiso, Ind., said in an interview after participating in the poll. “A lot of the things he said he would do, like pulling out the troops in 16 months and giving tax cuts to those who make under $200,000, I think he now sees are going to be a lot tougher than he thought and that the proper thing to do is stay more towards the middle and ease our way into whatever has to be done. It can’t all be accomplished immediately.”
Americans hold out hope for economy
While the public seems prepared to give Mr. Obama time, Americans clearly expect the country to be a different place when he finishes his first term at the end of 2012. The poll found that 75 percent expected the economy to be stronger in four years than it is today, and 75 percent said he would succeed in creating a significant number of jobs, while 59 percent said he would cut taxes for the middle class.
The survey found that 61 percent of respondents said things would be better in five years; last April, just 39 percent expressed a similar sentiment.
The telephone survey of 1,112 adults was conducted Jan. 11-15. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points.
The poll suggested some of the cross-currents Mr. Obama is navigating as he prepares to take office, and offers some evidence about why he has retooled some of his positions during this period.
For example, 60 percent said it was a good idea to raise taxes on people making over $200,000 to expand health insurance coverage, as Mr. Obama proposed during the campaign. But support for that idea dropped when voters were asked if they would still back the tax increase if it would hurt the economy. And in recent weeks, Mr. Obama has signaled that he might delay his campaign pledge to roll back tax cuts on the wealthy put in place under Mr. Bush.
Similarly, support for decreasing or removing all troops from Iraq slipped when respondents were asked if they would still support that policy even if it resulted in Iraq becoming a base for terrorists, an argument raised by Mr. Bush in calling for a sustained troop presence there.
The poll found overwhelming support for a large stimulus package to rescue the economy. Americans were divided, though, about whether Mr. Obama’s spending plan was too big, as some Republicans in Congress have argued, or not big enough, as some liberal economists argue. In the poll, 23 percent said his plan went too far, while 28 percent said it did not go far enough.
The poll also demonstrated one clear way the economic decline was molding American opinion. Given a choice between stimulating the economy and protecting the environment, 58 percent of Americans said it was more important to stimulate the economy, compared with 33 percent who chose protecting the environment. In April 2007, 36 percent said it was more important to stimulate the economy, compared with 52 percent who chose the environment.
In addition, 53 percent said they would oppose an increase in the federal tax on gasoline, even if it was intended to help reduce dependence on foreign oil.
By a number of measures, Mr. Obama appears to enjoy more good will from the American public than did his recent predecessors. For example, 68 percent of respondents said he would be a very good or good president; at this point after the disputed election of 2000, just 43 percent of respondents said that about Mr. Bush.
There were signs of distress about the economy: 60 percent of respondents said that they were very or somewhat concerned about being able to pay their home costs, and 39 percent said that the decline in home prices had affected them personally.
Slightly over half said that their household income provided them with just enough money to pay their bills.
Marina Stefan and Megan Thee-Brenan contributed reporting.
This article, Poll Finds Faith in Obama, Mixed With Patience, was published first in The New York Times.