President Barack Obama's national standing has slipped to a new low after his victory on the historic health care overhaul, even in the face of growing signs of economic revival, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll.
The survey shows the political terrain growing rockier for Obama and congressional Democrats heading into midterm elections, boosting Republican hopes for a return to power this fall.
Just 49 percent of people now approve of the job Obama's doing overall, and less than that — 44 percent — like the way he's handled health care and the economy. Last September, Obama hit a low of 50 percent in job approval before ticking a bit higher. His high-water mark as president was 67 percent in February of last year, just after he took office.
The news is worse for other Democrats. For the first time this year, about as many Americans approve of congressional Republicans as Democrats — 38 percent to 41 percent — and neither has an edge when it comes to the party voters want controlling Congress. Democrats also have lost their advantage on the economy; people now trust both parties equally on that, another first in 2010.
Roughly half want to fire their own congressman.
Adding to Democratic woes, people have grown increasingly opposed to the health care overhaul in the weeks since it became law; 50 percent now oppose it, the most negative measure all year. People also have a dim view of the economy though employers have begun to add jobs, including 162,000 in March. Just as many people rated the economy poor this month — 76 percent — as did last July.
And it could get worse for Democrats: One-third of those surveyed consider themselves tea party supporters, and three-quarters of those people are overwhelmingly Republicans or right-leaning independents. That means they are more likely to vote with the GOP in this fall's midterms, when energized base voters will be crucial amid the typical low turnout of a non-presidential election year.
With the electorate angry, Republicans enthusiastic and Democrats seemingly less so, Obama's party increasingly fears it could lose control of the House, if not the Senate, in his first midterms. The GOP, conversely, is emboldened as voters warm to its opposition to much of the president's agenda.
On the minds of Democrats and Republicans alike: the Democratic bloodletting in 1994, when the GOP seized control of Congress two years after Bill Clinton was elected president. But the less-dispiriting news for Democrats is that it's only April — a long way to November in politics.
Still, persuading change-minded voters to keep the status quo will be no easy task given that most people call details of the health care overhaul murky and that the unemployment rate is unlikely to fall below 9 percent by November.
The key for Obama and his party: firing up moribund Democratic voters while appealing to independents who are splitting their support after back-to-back national elections in which they tilted heavily toward Democrats and caused the power shift.
None of that will be easy.
Just listen to independent voters who typically decide elections.
"He's moving the country into a socialized country," Jim Fall, 73, of Wrightwood, Calif., said of the president. He worries that Obama is too "radical left wing" and that government has grown too big, saying: "He is constantly in our lives more and more and more and more."
Fall was just as down on the Democratic-controlled Congress: "They're horrible. I think all they do is talk," he said, adding that Republicans acted no differently when they had power: "Just spend and spend and spend."
In Spokane, Wash., Angela Hardin, 43, was just as disapproving.
"I don't like what's going on," the small business owner said. "He is just making a huge mess out of everything. ... He's all over the map. It's like, 'Slow down! Breathe! Think!'"
As for Democrats in Congress, she said: "I'm not happy with them." Republicans, she said, may be better. But she's really ambivalent toward any of them: "It's just beyond me how they can sit up there with all of their college degrees and fight like they were in middle school."
The new poll findings also show:
- Equal percentages of Democrats — 87 percent — approve of Obama's job performance as Republicans — 88 percent — disapprove. Independents are about split, 50 percent disapprove to 47 percent approve. And, when it comes to Congress, 91 percent of Republicans, 65 percent of independents and even 51 percent of Democrats disapprove.
- The tea party coalition remains fuzzy to most people; only 16 percent say they know a great deal or a lot about this political phenomenon born a year ago.
Obama remains a polarizing figure, as does Congress.
"He's trying to do what he said we was going to do," said David Jeter of Los Angeles, 51, who votes Democratic and co-owns a lighting business. Jeter credits Congress with passing health care but wonders: "Now what will they do? ... I watch Congress with bated breath, but I don't expect that anything is going to radically alter my life."
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted April 7-12, 2010 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide on both landline and cellular telephones. It had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.