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Gallup Polling Reveals Challenges for Obama

Nicholas Thompson | November 30, 2009

Gallup polling over the last two weeks is no doubt of concern to President Obama and the Democrats in Congress.  One devastating figure is that Obama dropped below 50% approval for the first time, the fourth fastest of any President.  At 49% overall, his approval drops to 39% among whites and to 44% among Independents (an 18-point drop since inauguration). George W. Bush first hit 49% approval in January of his re-election year and, compared with Obama, held higher approval from his party (89% for Bush compared with 82% for Obama) and Independents (48%).

Not only is the polling showing a drop in overall approval, but ratings of his handling of specific policies, and the policies themselves he is pushing, have also taken a hit.  With the headline, "Approval of Obama on Afghan War Dives," USA Today analyzed Wednesday's Gallup poll this way:

"His extended deliberations [on Afghanistan] may be taking a toll: 55% disapprove of the way he is handling Afghanistan and 35% approve, a reversal of his 56% approval rating four months ago...On a series of fronts, Obama is moving against headwinds:

• By more than 2-1, Americans say the United States should not close the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, as Obama has promised.

• By 49%-44%, Americans oppose passing a health care bill in Congress this year, which Obama calls critical.

• A majority are against holding the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, and nearly six in 10 say the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind should be tried in a military rather than a civilian court. That's at odds with the decision announced this month by Attorney General Eric Holder.

• When it comes to seven specific areas, Obama no longer commands majority support on any.  On only two — energy policy and global warming — does he have a net positive rating. On the economy, health care, jobs and Afghanistan, a majority disapprove of how he's doing. There's an almost even divide on his handling of terrorism: 45% approve, 47% disapprove."

Obama's approval rating could run into further trouble if he begins to lose significant support from his base, and his expected announcement to send over 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan will likely not be popular among one of the few pillars propping up his approval: Democrats.  Gallup shows 82% of Democrats approve of the job Obama is doing, which is tied with liberals at being higher than every demographic group other than blacks (91% approve).  However, Gallup also shows that only 29% of Democrats support sending additional troops to Afghanistan, while 57% support reducing the number. A loss of support from Democrats will make it difficult for Obama to raise his approval above 50% and puts him in a tough position for messaging and coalition building going into 2010.  A fractured base is something Bush did not face when he announced the surge in 2007, as 67% of Republicans supported his plan to add more troops in Iraq.

While Democrats and the White House are banking on healthcare reform passage to drive Obama's approval higher, Brenda Nyhan at Pollster.com shows this has rarely happened with previous Presidents, no matter how "unprecedented" the legislation.  But even if there is a bump in approval, it will likely be difficult to sustain.  Bush's approval jumped 13-points following his 2005 Thanksgiving visit to Iraq and soon thereafter U.S. capture of Saddam Hussein.  A month and a half later, Bush dropped below 50% for the first time.

The data does not look good for Obama and his agenda, and could make future policies and the 2010 elections difficult to win.

Nicholas Thompson is vice president of The Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm.

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Filed under: National Security, Health Care, News, and Obama Approval Rating