Obama Faces Challenge with Independents

5749859A recent CBS News Poll suggests there may be some cracks in support among a group that was instrumental in bringing Barack Obama to the White House – independents.

According to a CBS News Poll conducted November 13-16, a declining percentage of independents now approve of the way Mr. Obama is handling his overall job as president as well as some key policy areas compared to last month.

Even though more independents continue to approve (45 percent) than disapprove (40 percent) of the president's overall job performance, the percentage that approves is down 7 points from last month, and the number that disapproves is up 5 points.

In February 2009, when CBS News took its first measure of the president's job rating, 56 percent of independents approved of the job he was doing and that number soared to 65 percent as Mr. Obama marked his 100 days in office. Support for the president among independents has mostly declined since then.

Nov Oct April Feb
Approve 45% 52% 65% 56%
Dispprove 40% 35% 24% 12%
Don't Know 15% 13% 11% 32%

The latest CBS News Poll finds that independents give Mr. Obama his lowest approval rating on his handling of Afghanistan. Just 30 percent approve of the way he is handling that conflict, down 14 points from October. In addition, 71 percent of independents think the war is going badly, up from 48 percent in September. Sixty-nine percent of Americans overall say the war in Afghanistan is going badly for the U.S.

On the domestic front, by 48 percent to 40 percent, more independents now disapprove than approve of how the president is handling of the economy. Independents expressed more confidence in Mr. Obama's performance on this issue last month: 47 percent of independents supported the way Mr. Obama was handling the economy; 41 percent did not. Independents are not very optimistic about the nation's economic picture. Thirty percent say the economy is getting worse, and another 42 percent think it is staying the same. Only a quarter of independents think the economy is improving.

As health care legislation makes its way through Congress, 50 percent of independents disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of health care; 38 percent approve. Independents were more divided on this measure last month. The president has not received the approval of a majority of Americans, including independents; on the issue of health care since CBS News starting asking this question in June. In addition, 47 percent of independents mostly oppose the health care reforms currently under consideration in Congress; 36 percent mostly favor them. (Read more of the poll on health care here>)

Independents are called a swing group for a reason -- their views are more likely to fluctuate compared to party stalwarts. While some independents may currently have doubts about the president and his policies today, their opinions can – and often do -- change over time.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
For instance, at a similar point in President Bill Clinton's presidency, independents were divided over how he was handling his job. The economy was struggling at that time and most Americans viewed the economy as being in bad shape -- just like they do today. And in 1994, Republicans took control of Congress, winning 56 percent of the independent vote.

However, as the economy improved, Mr. Clinton's support among independents grew (as it did among Americans overall.) By November 1995, more independents approved than disapproved of the job Mr. Clinton was doing, and in the fall of 1996, shortly before he won re-election, 54 percent of independents approved of the way he was handing his job; just 27 percent disapproved.

Mr. Clinton went on to win the support of 43 percent of independent voters in 1996, higher than the 38 percent he received in 1992.

By contrast, in the fall of 1989, George H.W. Bush received a 66 percent approval rating from independents and remained popular over the next year largely due to the success of the Persian Gulf War. But as the economy worsened and the success of the war become a distant memory, his ratings declined. By October 1992, only 34 percent of independents approved of his job performance. He was unable to win back those independents and he lost his bid for re-election.

Last November, independent voters backed Barack Obama over John McCain by 52 percent to 44 percent, and their support was essential to Mr. Obama's victories in many battleground states. No presidential candidate had gotten as large a share of the independent vote since 1988, when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis with the backing of 55 percent of the independent vote.

A year later, Republicans have won governorships in two states that went for Mr. Obama last year, Virginia and New Jersey. In both states the Republican candidates were elected with the support of a majority of independent voters – a group that went for Mr. Obama in both states last November. Still, most Virginia and New Jersey independents said Mr. Obama was not a factor in their vote.

While it's hard to predict how independents will view the president going forward or how they may vote in next year's midterm elections, they are a group that bears watching.

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Jennifer De Pinto is manager of election and survey information for CBS News. Poll Positions is weekly Hotsheet feature on polling trends from the CBS News Survey and Polling Unit. Click here for more posts from the series.