After his party’s midterm losses and with the unemployment rate still hovering around 10 percent, President Barack Obama might be down.
But he’s far from out — especially when it comes to his prospects for re-election in 2012.
That’s the conclusion from the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, which finds that the president’s job approval rating has once again hit its lowest level; that more people believe the nation is on the wrong track than at any point in Obama’s presidency; and that just a third of Americans think the economy will rebound next year.
Yet the survey also shows Obama comfortably leading prominent Republicans like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups for 2012.
And it finds that nearly three-quarters of Americans personally like the president, even if they don’t agree with his policies.
So, rather than looking like a “battered and bruised” Rocky Balboa at this point in his presidency, says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, Obama resembles an “exhausted” Lance Armstrong.
“From my point of view, this poll is anything but a lump of coal in the president’s Christmas stocking,” said Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
“But there is a lot of work to be done,” Hart added.
Obama’s midterm evaluation
The survey — which was conducted Dec. 9-13 of 1,000 adults (200 by cell phone) and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — comes at essentially the midpoint of the president’s four-year term.
In the poll, Obama’s job approval rating sits at 45 percent (down two points from last month and tied for his lowest mark on this question), and his economic approval rating stands at 42 percent (which is unchanged from last month).
Indeed, perhaps the most striking observation about Obama’s numbers is how stable they’ve been over the past year.
Despite all the setbacks he and his party have suffered — including the high unemployment rate, the months-long BP spill, and the midterms’ shift of power to the GOP in the House of Representatives — his overall job approval rating has remained between 45 percent to 50 percent over the past 12 months.
“This is a president who retains very strong numbers with a political core constituency,” said GOP pollster Bill McInturff, referring to Obama’s strong standing among African-Americans (87 percent overall approval), Democrats (76 percent), Latinos (53 percent) and younger votes.
“It is really important not to lose track of his retained strength.”
(Obama is still unpopular with voters outside of his party, however. Among independents, his approval is 35 percent; among Republicans, it’s 11 percent.)
Obama vs. Romney and Palin
Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential race, the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows Obama leading prominent Republicans in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups.
Against Romney, the lead is seven points, 47 percent to 40 percent. Against Palin, it’s 22 points, 55 percent to 33 percent. And against Sen. John Thune, R-S.D. — another potential presidential candidate, though not as well known — it’s 20 points, 47 percent to 27 percent.
And in a generic match-up, with respondents asked to choose between voting to re-elect Obama or his Republican opponent, Obama leads by three points, 42 percent to 39 percent, with an additional 10 percent saying it depends who the GOP opponent is.
With Palin trailing Obama by 22 points — and with her negative rating now at 50 percent, her all-time high in the poll — McInturff says that this is “a sobering starting point” for her if she decides to run for president.
Personal vs. professional
One hint about why Obama still appears dominant over his potential GOP rivals might be that, when it comes to the president’s personality, voters still like what they see. His personal ratings remain much stronger than his professional ratings.
For instance, he gets his highest marks for having a strong family and family values (74 percent give him a high rating here), being easygoing and likeable (68 percent), being inspirational and exciting (51 percent) and having strong leadership qualities (49 percent).
But his lowest marks come on being a good commander-in-chief (41 percent), sharing respondents’ positions on the issues (35 percent), achieving his goals (33 percent), uniting the country (30 percent) and changing business as usual in Washington (24 percent).
Still, an overwhelming majority of Americans either believe that Obama will be a successful president or they haven’t made up their minds yet.
According to the poll, 28 percent say he will ultimately be a successful president, 29 percent say he won’t and 42 percent aren’t ready to make a judgment.
Hart and McInturff argue that this plurality of Americans who aren’t ready to make a judgment about Obama — one month removed from his party’s self-described “shellacking” in the midterms — is relatively good news for the president.
“People want a successful presidency,” McInturff said. “Things are so bad, they don’t think we can afford to have an unsuccessful presidency.”
A pessimistic public
While they might want a successful presidency, there’s little doubt that public is mostly pessimistic about the country’s direction and its economy.
- 63 percent think the country is headed in the wrong direction, the highest percentage on this question during Obama’s presidency;
- only 32 percent believe the economy will improve in the next 12 months, down five points from last month;
- and a combined 54 percent say that the past 10 years have either been a “very bad” decade or “one of the worst decades in American history.”
Significantly, 65 percent maintain that the current economy is a situation that Obama inherited, versus 21 percent who say it’s a result of his economic policies.
The midterm message and the tax-cut compromise
The poll also finds that a plurality (35 percent) believes the president got the message from the midterm elections and is making adjustments, versus 29 percent who say he got the message but isn’t making the adjustments.
In Dec. 2006, after his party lost control of Congress, 24 percent said George W. Bush got the message and was making adjustments, versus 41 percent who said he wasn’t making adjustments.
And speaking of adjustments — namely Obama’s compromise with Republicans to temporarily extend the Bush-era tax cuts — 59 percent of respondents say they approve of the deal and 36 percent disapprove.
The agreement, which the Senate passed on Wednesday and which the House is expected to consider on Thursday, would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels (including the wealthy) for two years, in exchange for a one-year extension of unemployment benefits and a temporary reduction in payroll taxes.
What's more, 61 percent believe the agreement was a fair compromise for both Obama and Republican leaders, while 23 percent think Obama gave up too much and 10 percent say Republicans gave up too much.
START, Afghanistan and the GOP
Here are some other notable results in the poll:
- An overwhelming majority (70 percent) believes the Senate should approve the New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty;
- By a 53-to-45 percent margin, Americans approve keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2014 (however, a majority of Democrats and independents disapprove);
- And for the first time since 2005, the Republican Party has a net-positive favorable/unfavorable rating (38-37 percent), while the Democratic Party has a net-negative rating (37-41 percent).
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.