- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The curtain is coming down on a tough first year for President Obama, whose poll numbers have dropped dramatically in the face of rising unemployment, a slipping legislative agenda and painful decisions on health care, the economy and the war in Afghanistan.

His support has faltered on all those key issues - and from both ends of the spectrum. Opponents blame him for expanding the size of government while some in his Democratic base accuse him of not pushing hard enough for his agenda.

As Mr. Obama leads his party into next year’s congressional elections, pollsters say, his overall approval rating - down to an average of 48 percent from 67 percent in January, according to Pollster.com’s aggregate of several national polls - likely will be tied to the unemployment rate, which hovers at 10 percent.

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“The economy may be growing and the recession may be over, but on Main Street, people who are unemployed are not happy and people who are worried about being unemployed are not happy,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

Only 44 percent of Americans approve of Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy, compared with 59 percent in February, when he signed the $787 billion stimulus package, according to National Journal’s Pollster.com.

Support for Mr. Obama’s handling of his marquee health care initiative, now nearing final approval in Congress, stands at 41 percent - down from 57 percent in February.

Democratic leaders and the White House have suggested that the lack of public backing for the health care bill will change once it has been passed and blame Republicans for spreading misinformation about what’s in the legislation. Republicans, meanwhile, are banking on voter opposition to the plan to hold firm throughout next year.

Democratic pollster Tom Jensen said he doubts Mr. Obama will see any short-term gain from signing health care reform into law, arguing that independents and Republicans who overwhelmingly oppose the bill are not likely to be swayed.

“Independent voters are uncomfortable with him on health care but I don’t think that’s going to break his back,” said Mr. Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling. “What’s ultimately going to decide Obama’s fate with those folks is if the economy turns around or not.”

Mr. Brown noted that President Reagan’s popularity lagged in the early part of his first term but that he won a landslide re-election campaign in 1984 as the nation pulled out of a recession.

Likewise, President George W. Bush struggled with a sluggish economy heading into his own re-election in 2004 but won a second term with numbers comparable to where Mr. Obama’s are now. However, he led his party to catastrophic defeats two years later as his ratings percentages dipped into the 30s.

Mr. Jensen said the 2010 midterm elections are likely to be “brutal for Democrats” but that it won’t be solely a result of Mr. Obama’s approval ratings.

“Republicans are just considerably more motivated right now than Democrats are,” he said, predicting a repeat of the situation faced by President Clinton, who was re-elected in 1996 despite Democrats’ disastrous showing in the 1994 elections.

On Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s numbers are nuanced. Sixty-two percent of voters approved of his February decision to send an additional 17,000 troops to the war-torn country and 58 percent said in early December that they support his move to send 30,000 more, according to Quinnipiac. But in a later Quinnipiac poll, only 47 percent approve of Mr. Obama’s handling of the war overall.

Results from Gallup are even more stark: Mr. Obama’s approval on Afghanistan plummeted from 56 percent in mid-July to 35 percent in late November. However, 51 percent said they approved of the 30,000-troop surge in a poll taken after Mr. Obama’s Dec. 1 announcement.

Pollster.com does not track attitudes toward Mr. Obama’s Afghanistan policy, only his foreign policy in general.

Analysts say the breakdown of support for the war among Democrats and Republicans underscores part of the challenge facing a president who has a hand in so many disparate areas.

“The funny thing about Afghanistan is the people who are behind President Obama’s policy on Afghanistan are by and large the ones who are against him on health care,” Mr. Brown noted, “which creates a very difficult coalition to keep together on different issues.”

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