Obama's Approval Rating on Economy Just 38 Percent - But it Could be Worse

President Obama answers questions during the MTV, BET, CMT Youth Town Hall, Oct. 14, 2010. CBS

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For two years, CBS News Polls have shown that 4 in 5 Americans think the economy is in bad shape. When asked the most important issue facing the country, the economy far surpasses any other issue.

That's the case in the most recent CBS News Poll as well, and few expect the economy to improve anytime soon - just 22 percent say it is getting better.

President Obama's approval rating on handling the economy reflects Americans' bleak perceptions of it. In the latest poll, 38 percent approve of how the president is handling the economy, the lowest rating he has received since assuming office.

Despite Americans' current concerns about the economy, Mr. Obama's isn't the lowest economic approval rating a president has received in the CBS News Poll. In August 1992, during his unsuccessful campaign for re-election, just 14 percent approved of how President George H. W. Bush was handling the economy, while 80 percent disapproved.

His son received similarly low marks on the issue: in September 2008, as the current economic troubles began, just 16 percent approved and 76 percent disapproved of how George W. Bush was handling the economy. But those low ratings occurred at the end of their presidencies, not just before a midterm election.

An apt comparison might be to Ronald Reagan, another president facing a serious economic downturn that included a 10 percent unemployment rate - similar to the current level of joblessness - just before a midterm election. In September 1982, 59 percent of Americans thought the economy had gotten worse over the past year, and only 14 percent felt it had improved. Twenty-five percent thought it had not changed.

At that time, fewer than half of Americans approved of how Mr. Reagan was handling the economy. In September 1982, just 35 percent approved, the lowest rating of Mr. Reagan's presidency, and 57 percent disapproved - marks similar to those Mr. Obama receives from the public now. And while Mr. Reagan's approval rating on the economy showed a slight uptick in October 1982, it fell again at the start of 1983.

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Other presidents have also received weak ratings on the economy just before midterm elections. In October 1994, although 55 percent of Americans thought the economy was in good shape, President Bill Clinton still received mostly negative evaluations from the public for his handling of it; just 39 percent approved.

President George H. W. Bush's approval rating on handling the economy was also more negative than positive: in October 1990, 36 percent approved and 52 percent disapproved. Two in three Americans said the economy was in bad shape then. The Republican Party went on to lose 26 seats in the House in the 1982 midterm elections, and the Democrats lost more then 50 seats in the 1994 elections. Republicans lost seats in 1990 as well.

While evaluations of the economy and a president's handling of it are not necessarily predictors of losses by a president's party in a midterm election, it remains to be seen what impact the public's current poor assessment of the economy, and Mr. Obama's handling of it, will have on the outcome of the Congressional elections this November.


Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. You can read more of her posts here.

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    Sarah Dutton is the CBS News director of surveys.

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