The Year in Polls

How will history judge President Obama's first year? It's too early to hazard a guess, but public opinion polls offer some initial assessments about this tumultuous year.

And what a year it was! We greeted a new president with high hopes and a full agenda on Inauguration Day. We struggled with an economy sapped of its vital force and passed a whopping $787 billion stimulus package to address its weaknesses. Government interventions in the economy were unprecedented, and the deficit ballooned. Unemployment hit 10%. A decades-long quest to reform the health care system seems within reach. How does all this activity stack up in public opinion? Let's take a look.

Despite our early enthusiasm for the new president, the public's mood about the state of the nation has been grim all year. In December 2008, 89% told CNN/Opinion Research Corp. pollsters that the economy was in recession. This month, 84% gave that response. In February, 18% said they or someone in their household had been laid off or lost a job in the past year. In November, 30% said that was the case.

What about the problems the country faces?

In January, the economy, volunteered by 57% of those surveyed, took the top spot in Gallup's question about the most important problem the country was facing. In Gallup's latest, it topped the chart again. Thirty-one percent mentioned it spontaneously and another 20% volunteered unemployment or jobs.

What about our leaders?

Both President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were less popular in December than at the beginning of the year. Three-quarters approved of the way Obama was handling his job in February's CNN/Opinion Research poll; 54% did so in their mid-December poll. In another question in the poll, slightly more said Obama had met (39%) their expectations or exceeded them (11%) as said he had fallen short (48%).

Biden's rating also dropped, from 53% in the spring in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll to 38% in December.

Michelle Obama, by contrast, has improved her standing since the campaign and stayed popular all year. Sixty-five percent in a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from January and an almost identical 63% in November had a generally favorable opinion of her. Views of Hillary Clinton have been high and positive all year, too. The same can't be said for Nancy Pelosi, who has become a lightning rod for GOP opposition.

And how did Congress fare?

Its ratings slumped significantly in 2009. One-fourth of those questioned in Gallup's new poll approved of the job Congress was doing. Only 42% of Democrats approved of the institution their party controls. The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has asked a question about the performance and accomplishments of Congress since 1990, and this year's responses were the most negative ever. Just 1% rated the actions of this Congress as one of the best ever, and another 6% above average. One-third rated them average, 24% below average and 34% one of the worst.

And our political parties?

The ground is shifting politically. The "generic ballot" question that asks people who they would vote for if the 2010 elections were held today shows gains for the GOP. This month, 39% said the country would be better off if the GOP controlled Congress and 40% said the Democrats. But in January, the Democrats had a 25-point advantage on the question. In Pew's polls, when people are asked to identify themselves as Democrats, Republicans or Independents, more people than ever before call themselves Independents. Of the remainder, Democrats still outnumber Republicans, but Republicans are gaining.

When asked about which party can better handle issues, the Democrats lost ground on all 13 issues the Ipsos/McClatchy poll probed, with especially steep declines on economic issues. Fifty-six percent in December 2008 said the Democrats would do a better job on reducing the deficit; 34% gave that response this month. Twenty-six percent in 2008 said the Republicans would do a better job; that response is now 41%. In other areas, such as dealing with the economy (and separately, taxes), people are now split. But last year, the Democrats had big advantages on those issues.

Despite our troubles, there is good news. American optimism shines through the sea of negative public opinion soundings. In a new Pew poll, when asked to compare recent decades, more people rated this decade negatively than rated other recent decades (1960s on) that way. But when asked about next decade, a solid 59% expected it to be better, 32% worse.

Karlyn Bowman is the Senior Fellow in Political Studies at AEI.

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About the Author


  • Karlyn Bowman compiles and analyzes American public opinion using available polling data on a variety of subjects, including the economy, taxes, the state of workers in America, environment and global warming, attitudes about homosexuality and gay marriage, NAFTA and free trade, the war in Iraq, and women's attitudes. In addition, Ms. Bowman has studied and spoken about the evolution of American politics because of key demographic and geographic changes. She has often lectured on the role of think tanks in the United States and writes a weekly column for
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