Barack Obama’s presidency seems to be altering the public perception of race relations in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans now say race relations are generally good, and the percentage of blacks who say so has doubled since last July, according to the latest New York Times/ CBS News poll.
Despite that, half of blacks still say whites have a better chance of getting ahead in American society, the poll found. Black Americans remain among the president’s staunchest supporters; 70 percent of black respondents now say the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 34 percent of whites.
The poll found broad support for Mr. Obama’s approach on a variety of issues, including one of the most contentious: whether Congress should investigate the harsh interrogation tactics authorized by George W. Bush. Sixty-two percent of Americans share Mr. Obama’s view that hearings are unnecessary.
Americans seem to have high hopes for the president; 72 percent said they were optimistic about the next four years. By and large, Americans expect him to make significant progress in health care, energy and immigration policy, issues central to his ambitious domestic agenda.
But the optimism is tempered by a feeling of resignation about two of the most difficult challenges he faces: reviving the economy and ending United States military involvement in Iraq. Most Americans say Mr. Obama has begun to make progress on both fronts, but many do not expect either the recession or the war to be over by the end of his term.
It is not unusual for new presidents to enjoy substantial public support at this point in their tenure. But Mr. Obama’s 68 percent job approval rating is higher than that of any recent president at the 100-day mark. Mr. Bush had the approval of 56 percent of the public at this juncture.
But while Americans clearly have faith in Mr. Obama, the poll revealed something of a disconnect between what the public thinks the president has already accomplished and what it expects him to achieve.
Fewer than half of those surveyed, 48 percent, said Mr. Obama had begun to make progress on one of his major campaign promises, changing the way business is conducted in Washington. And just 39 percent said he had begun to make progress on another major promise, cutting taxes for middle-class Americans, even though the stimulus bill he signed into law does include a middle class tax cut.
Mr. Obama will mark his 100th day in office on Wednesday with a trip to St. Louis and a prime time news conference, where aides say he will make the case that he has made “a down payment” on fixing the nation’s biggest problems. The poll found that Americans seem to share that view, suggesting the White House has been effective at casting Mr. Obama as an agent of change, while persuading the public that change will take time.
“With all Obama wants to do and all he’s got going, it’s going to take more than four years,” said Larry Gibbons, 58, a retired restaurant manager and a Republican in Phoenix who voted for Mr. Obama’s opponent, John McCain. Speaking in a follow-up interview to the poll, he said, “Obama is attacking everything at once and I do approve of that.”
Throughout Mr. Obama’s candidacy and his young presidency, race has been a subtle thread woven through his message of change. Yet the president shies away from talking about it. In response to a question at his last news conference, Mr. Obama conceded that his election had created ‘’justifiable pride on the part of the country,” then quickly shifted gears, adding, “That lasted about a day.”
But Americans do feel differently about race and race relations with Mr. Obama in the White House, according to poll respondents who spoke in follow-up interviews. Some, like Jacqueline Luster, 60, a retired bank employee in Macedonia, Ohio, say that the times are changing, and that Mr. Obama seems to be speeding that change.
“With him as president, people seem to be working together toward the same goals, and that has helped race relations,” said Ms. Luster, who is black and a Democrat. “Before there was more of a separation, blacks working for black goals and whites for white goals. Obama has helped change the perception of blacks in a positive way, but it’s also the times.”
Another Democrat, Lisa Fleming, 49, who is white, said that even in the small Illinois town, Potomac, where she lived, she noticed “people of different races being kinder to each other” since Mr. Obama’s election. In Kansas City, a white Republican homemaker, Mary Robertson, 78, said Mr. Obama’s ‘’openness and acceptance have helped others be more open and accepting.”
The nationwide telephone survey was conducted Wednesday through Sunday with 973 adults. For purposes of analysis, blacks were oversampled in this poll, for a total of 212, and then weighted back to their proper proportion in the poll, based on the census. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points for all people, and plus or minus seven points for blacks.
After nearly 100 days of watching Mr. Obama conduct the affairs of state, more than two-thirds of Americans say he is not a typical politician, though most say he is set apart more by his style and his personal qualities than his policies.
For instance, the poll found that the public appears divided over whether the Obama administration has broken with the Bush administration in its overall foreign policy. Forty-three percent of respondents said there had been some change in foreign policy since Mr. Obama took office, the poll found, while 44 percent said there had been no change. Thirteen percent did not have an opinion.
Yet the public does give Mr. Obama credit for improving the image of the United States with the rest of the world. And it found support for Mr. Obama’s overtures to Iran and Cuba; a majority, 53 percent, said they favored establishing diplomatic relations with Iran, while two-thirds favored Mr. Obama’s plans to thaw relations with Cuba.
Megan Thee-Brenan, Marina Stefan and Dalia Sussman contributed reporting.
This article, Obama Is Nudging Views on Race, a Survey Finds, first appeared in The New York Times.