Two months of oil continuing to gush from a well off the Gulf Coast, as well as an unemployment rate still near 10 percent, have taken a toll on President Barack Obama and his standing with the American public, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
For the first time in the survey, more disapprove of his job performance than approve; for the first time in his presidency, more than 60 percent believe the country is on the wrong track; and as he relieves Gen. Stanley McChrystal of his command in Afghanistan, Obama’s scores on being able to handle a crisis and on being decisive have plummeted since last year.
This is a president who has been bruised and bloodied by the events of the past few months, although not yet knocked down, say the Democratic and Republican pollsters who conducted the survey.
“There is just no way that an American president is not going to see his job rating affected” after these events, observed GOP pollster Bill McInturff. “The little faint signs [of improvement] we were seeing in April and May have been squished by two months of this story in the Gulf.”
Added Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart: “These numbers aren’t good. But they are far from awful.”
Obama’s declining numbers
In the poll, Obama’s job-approval rating stands at 45 percent, which is down five points from early last month and down three points from late May.
Forty-eight percent in the current survey say they disapprove of his job performance.
What’s more, Obama’s favorable/unfavorable rating is now at 47 percent to 40 percent, down from 49 percent to 38 percent in early May and 52 percent to 35 percent in January.
His scores on other ascpects of the presidency also have declined. In April 2009, 54 percent gave the president high marks for being able to handle a crisis; now it’s 40 percent.
In July 2009, 57 percent gave him high marks for being decisive and for his decision-making; now it’s 44 percent.
And also in July 2009, 61 percent gave him high marks for having strong leadership qualities; now it’s 49 percent.
A silver lining for Obama is that his personal scores are still strong: 64 percent give him high marks for being easygoing and likeable, and 51 percent give him high marks for being compassionate enough to understand average people.
Yet those percentages, too, are down from last year.
“On the personal level,” says Hart, the Democratic pollster, “the public still stays with him.”
Gulf spill takes it toll on Obama — and especially BP
There is no doubt that the two-month Gulf spill has played a significant role in the president’s declining poll numbers.
In the survey — which was conducted after Obama’s fourth visit to the Gulf last week, after his Oval Office address on the spill, and after getting BP to agree to a $20 billion escrow account to help pay for relief — 50 percent say they disapprove of Obama’s handling of the spill, while 42 percent approve.
But the public gives him better ratings than it does Congress, the federal government, and BP.
A combined 48 percent believe that Obama has done more or as much as expected in dealing with spill. By comparison, 39 percent say the same of Congress, 36 percent say that of the federal government (including the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency), and just 27 percent say that of BP.
Indeed, the poll shows that only 6 percent have a favorable rating of BP. In the history of the NBC News/Journal poll, Saddam Hussein (3 percent), Fidel Castro (3 percent) and Yasser Arafat (4 percent) have had lower favorable scores, and O.J. Simpson (11 percent) and tobacco-maker Philip Morris (15 percent) have had higher ratings.
The spill also has slightly changed attitudes about offshore drilling. In May, 60 percent said they supported the proposal allowing for more offshore drilling off the U.S. coast. That percentage now has dropped to 53 percent, although it’s still a majority.
The economy and the economic blame game
The other dominant story in the poll is the public’s sour mood about the economy and about the nation’s direction.
After last month’s disappointing jobs report (in which the economy added just 41,000 private-sector jobs), only 33 percent believe the U.S. economy will get better in the next 12 months. That is a seven-point drop since May.
In addition, 62 percent say the country is headed in the wrong direction, which is its highest point in Obama’s presidency.
Yet the public continues to blame George W. Bush more for the state of the economy than it does Obama.
According to the poll, a combined 40 percent say that Bush and his administration’s policies are “solely” or “mainly” responsible for the current economic conditions, while just 27 percent say the same of Obama and his policies.
Overall, 29 percent see Bush in a positive light, versus 50 percent who view him negatively — similar to his numbers when he left office in Jan. 2009.
The GOP’s midterm advantage
When it comes to the midterm elections, the Republican Party still appears to have the edge heading into November.
Forty-five percent prefer a GOP-controlled Congress after this year’s elections, compared with 43 percent who want a Democratic-controlled Congress.
This is the GOP’s second-straight lead on this generic-ballot question, which hasn’t occurred since 2002.
“The Republican Party has a major advantage in the fall, and this poll just reconfirms that,” Hart said.
Moreover, 32 percent say their vote this November will be a signal of opposition for Obama, versus 27 percent who say it will be a signal of support for him. That’s a reversal from January, when 37 percent said their vote would be in support for the president, while 27 percent said it would be in opposition.
(That said, Obama’s numbers here don’t compare to Bush’s before the 2006 midterms, when 37 percent said their vote would be in opposition to him, versus 22 percent who said it would be in support.)
Still, the poll — which was conducted June 17-21 of 1,000 adults (200 by cell phone), and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — contains warning signs for both political parties.
One question measured a host of candidate attributes to consider. The highest-scoring ones included: “supporting cutting federal spending” (which would appear to benefit GOP candidates), “favors financial reform of Wall Street” (which would seem to help Democrats), “favors the new law in Arizona on immigration” (advantage GOP) and “supports repealing the health care reform law” (advantage GOP).
The lowest-scoring ones were: “is endorsed by Sarah Palin” (advantage Democrats), “supported the economic policies of George W. Bush” (advantage Democrats), “supports abolishing some federal agencies, including the Department of Education” (like some GOP candidates have advocated) and “supports phasing out Social Security” (as some GOP candidates also are advocating).
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.