Economy Expectations May Be Giving Obama a Lift

The recovery may be offsetting any recent controversies that would otherwise hurt the president's approval rating.

President Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013. The president is proposing sweeping steps to limit heat-trapping pollution from coal-fired power plants and to boost renewable energy production on federal property, resorting to his executive powers to tackle climate change and sidestepping the partisan gridlock in Congress.  (AP)

Despite recent controversies, President Obama's approval rating is holding steady in the latest Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor survey.

In the survey, 48 percent of adults said they approve of his performance; 46 percent said they disapprove. That's a small shift, within the survey's margin of error, from the previous Heartland Monitor Poll in April, when 46 percent approved and 49 percent disapproved. The new poll was conducted May 29 through June 2, after revelations about the Internal Revenue Service's controversial targeting of conservative groups but before disclosures about massive government collection of phone and Internet records.

Obama may be getting a lift from brightening economic expectations. Even though adults remain divided almost in half between those who describe their current financial situation as excellent or good (49 percent) and those who see it as only fair or poor (51 percent), that positive number is the highest the Heartland Monitor has recorded in surveys dating back to April 2009. The new poll also captured a measurable swell in optimism about the future: 47 percent said they expect their financial situation to improve over the next year, up from just 36 percent who felt that way in April. Only 11 percent now expect their financial situation to deteriorate over the next year, down from 22 percent in April. The remaining 40 percent expect no change in their condition.

Another lift for Obama: In the controversy over the IRS's targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, most adults are inclined to believe, in effect, that everybody does it. Just 16 percent of those polled said "this type of activity by the IRS is a first-time occurrence and a result of a new kind of negative politics." Fully 79 percent said "this type of activity is typical and has probably happened before during previous administrations." That view was shared by not only 84 percent of Democrats but also 82 percent of independents and 72 percent of Republicans.

Other measures largely show stability in public attitudes — but at a frostier level for Obama than in the immediate aftermath of his reelection. For instance, 30 percent said they believe the country was moving on the right track, almost unchanged from April, but well below the 41 percent level in the Heartland Monitor in November. Likewise, just 29 percent said they believed the Obama administration's action will "increase opportunity for people like you to get ahead." That's also unchanged from April but down from 36 percent in two surveys during fall 2012. Asked if Obama's economic policies helped to avoid a worse economic crisis and are fueling recovery, or whether they bloated the federal debt without doing much good, a 46 percent to 42 percent plurality picked the negative choice, another slight deterioration for the president since last fall.

Extending the pattern, Obama retained a solid lead (42 percent to 33 percent) over congressional Republicans when respondents were asked whom they trust more to develop economic solutions. That also essentially marks no change from April but is only about half Obama's advantage from last November. Congress's own numbers remain bleak, with just 17 percent approving of its performance and 77 percent disapproving.

The results consistently reflect the vast racial gap evident in last fall's election (when Obama carried a combined 80 percent of nonwhite voters and just 39 percent of whites). The share of whites, for instance, who believe Obama's agenda will diminish their opportunities is more than double the percentage who believe it will increase them; among nonwhites, the results run 2-to-1 in the other direction. (Fewer than one in six whites without a college degree believe Obama's agenda will lift them.) Nonwhites, by more than 3-to-1, prefer Obama over congressional Republicans to set economic policy; whites prefer the GOP by 5 percentage points. Obama's overall approval rating among whites ticked up from April but still sits at just 40 percent, far below his 71 percent rating among minorities. In 13 Heartland Monitor Polls since January 2010, only once have more than 41 percent of whites approved of Obama's performance — immediately after the killing of Osama bin Laden.