Grim economic outlook weighs down Obama approval rating

US President Barack Obama pauses while speaking during an unscheduled appearance December 8, 2011 in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Updated 7:25 p.m. ET

CBS News Poll analysis by the CBS News Polling Unit: Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Fred Backus and Anthony Salvanto.

Less than one year out from Election Day 2012, voters remain overwhelmingly pessimistic about the economy, and their concerns are taking a toll on President Obama's re-election chances. Just 41 percent of Americans think Mr. Obama has performed his job well enough to be elected to a second term, whereas 54 percent don't think so.

The president's overall approval rating remains in the mid-40's, according to a CBS News poll - lower than the approval ratings of Mr. Obama's four presidential predecessors at this point in their first terms. Mr. Obama's approval rating is dragged down by his poor marks for his handling of the economy - which, at 33 percent, is the lowest rating of his presidency in CBS News polls.

Mr. Obama receives better marks on foreign policy and for his leadership skills. But when it comes to leading the economy in the right direction, voters are unimpressed: Just 28 percent think he has made progress on improving the economy. And most Americans say the president doesn't share the public's priorities, according to the poll, conducted December 5-7.

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Obama and the economy

Forty-four percent of Americans approve of the job Mr. Obama is doing as president, and about as many - 46 percent - disapprove. His approval rating has remained fairly steady but below 50 percent since the spring of 2010, aside from an uptick in the spring of 2011 following the death of Osama bin Laden.

Since bin Laden's death, the president has received high marks for his handling of terrorism: In this poll, 57 percent approve. Voters are split on his handling of foreign policy overall, with 41 percent approving and 41 percent disapproving.

Views of how he has handled the economy is the obvious drag on the president's ratings: While just 33 percent approve, 60 percent disapprove. Similarly, just 35 percent approve his his handling of job creation while 58 percent disapprove. The last time Mr. Obama's approval rating on the economy was above 40 percent was in February of this year.

Views on the national economy remain very negative: Since early 2008, roughly three in four Americans (and sometimes even more) have said the economy is in bad shape. Now, 86 percent of Americans characterize the economy as at least somewhat bad, including 42 percent who say it is very bad.

Although the national unemployment rate recently dropped below 9 percent for the first time since 2009, Americans are skeptical that a recovery is on the horizon. Just 21 percent think the economy is getting better, and 39 percent think it is getting worse, up from 32 percent last month. Another 40 percent think the economy isn't changing.

When asked if Mr.Obama has made real progress fixing the economy, 68 percent say he has not, and just 28 percent say he has. And while 37 percent say the Obama administration's policies prevented the country from going into a deeper recession, just under half - 49 percent - say those policies did not do that.

In addition, more think the policies of the Obama administration have mostly favored Wall Street (42 percent) than mostly favored average Americans (38 percent).

But while they may disapprove of his handling of this issue, few Americans think the president is most to blame for the current state of the nation's economy. When asked to choose between the Bush administration, the Obama administration, Wall Street, and Congress, more Americans blame the Bush administration (22 percent) or Congress (16 percent) than Wall Street (12 percent) or Mr. Obama (12 percent), though 24 percent volunteer that a combination of all four is to blame.

Obama: Unemployment could go down to 8% by election ("60 Minutes" interview)

Mr. Obama's qualities and characteristics

Despite an approval rating in the 40s, Americans appear to have a positive impression of Mr. Obama on some personal measures. A 57 percent majority views the president as a strong leader, similar to the percentage in a September poll -- but that figure has declined significantly since he took office. Democrats (85 percent) and independents (57 percent) say Mr. Obama has strong qualities of leadership, while 67 percent of Republicans disagree.

Fifty-nine percent Americans describe the president as down-to-earth, and just a third says he is aloof. Democrats and independents see him as down-to-earth, while more than half of Republicans perceive the president as aloof.

The president is also seen as a fighter: Two thirds of Americans think Mr. Obama fights hard for his policies; just 26 percent say he doesn't. More than half of Republicans think Mr. Obama fights hard for his policies.

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Bringing change and uniting Americans were central elements of Mr. Obama's presidential campaign four years ago. Today, most Americans think he has worked hard to bring about change (57 percent), but fewer (37 percent) think his presidency has united the country. There are partisan differences on these measures also.

Additionally, most Americans do not think the president's priorities for the country are in line with theirs. Fifty-four percent say Mr. Obama doesn't share their priorities, while 41 percent think he does. This is the public's most negative assessment on this question since Mr. Obama assumed office. Again, the public divides along partisan lines: 73 percent of Democrats say he shares their priorities, while 79 percent of Republicans say he does not.

Americans also remain skeptical of one of the major legislative achievements of Mr. Obama's first term as president -- the 2010 health care reform law. Fifty-one percent of Americans disapprove of the law, including a third who strongly disapprove, while just 35 percent approve either somewhat or strongly. More Americans have disapproved than approved of the law since it was passed in March 2010.

Half of all Americans think Mr. Obama should have focused his priorities elsewhere during his first term in office, though 43 percent think he did the right thing in trying to reform the health care system.

Congressional gridlock

Congress' job approval rating is far lower than the president's. Eighty-two percent of Americans disapprove of the job Congress is doing, while 11 percent approve - just two percentage points above the all-time low of 9 percent recorded last month.

When it comes to the difficulties in reaching agreements and passing legislation in Congress, Americans put more of the blame on the Republicans in Congress than Mr. Obama and the Democrats. Forty-two percent blame Republicans more, while just 26 percent blame Mr. Obama and the Democrats, though 22 percent volunteer both are equally to blame.

Looking ahead to 2012

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Americans continue to be unhappy with the direction the country is headed: Three in four think the country is off on the wrong track. Just one in five thinks it is headed in the right direction.

With nearly a year left before the 2012 election, 41 percent of Americans think Mr. Obama has performed his job well enough to be elected to a second term, but 54 percent don't think so. Not surprisingly, most Democrats think Mr. Obama deserves to be re-elected, while most Republicans do not. More than half of independents do not think he deserves to be re-elected.

As the president gears up for his re-election campaign, 66 percent of Americans say they do not have a clear idea of what he wants to accomplish in a second term; just a third say they do. Fewer than half of Democrats say they have a clear idea of what the president wants to accomplish if re-elected.

Mr. Obama's 44 percent approval rating is only slightly below President Bill Clinton's at this point in time in his presidency (47 percent), but it is 14 points lower than President Ronald Reagan's was in late 1983. President George W. Bush's approval rating, at 52 percent in December 2003, was also higher than Mr. Obama's.

Comparisons to modern one-term presidents are mixed. President Obama's approval rating is lower than President George H. W. Bush's in November 1991, but Mr. Bush's approval rating dropped precipitously during 1992. In contrast, Mr. Obama's current approval rating is much higher than the 30 percent Jimmy Carter received in late 1979.

After nearly three years in the White House, 52 percent of Americans say Mr. Obama's performance in office has been about what they expected, but 35 percent feel his time in office has been disappointing. Few Americans - even among Democrats -- say he has exceeded their expectations.

Full CBS News poll results (PDF)


This poll was conducted by telephone from December 5-7, 2011 among 856 adults nationwide. Phone numbers were dialed from samples of both standard land-line and cell phones. The error due to sampling for results based on the entire sample could be plus or minus three percentage points. The error for subgroups may be higher. This poll release conforms to the Standards of Disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

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