America on Obama

Senior Fellow
Karlyn Bowman

Barack Obama won the presidency with 53% of the popular vote. But in Gallup polling conducted through last week, a much higher proportion, 64%, said they have confidence in his ability to be a good president. Obama is the beneficiary of more good will than his recent predecessors, and expectations of him are extraordinarily high.

Most of us genuinely want to give our new leaders a chance, and this is especially true because we've broken a racial barrier with his election. The public's assessment of the Bush presidency is so negative, and the mood so sour, that it's hardly surprising that the new president has substantial public opinion capital.

The public's assessment of the Bush presidency is so negative, that it's hardly surprising that the new president has substantial public opinion capital.

Comparable polls of past presidents further illustrate this point. Eighty-three percent of respondents to a new Gallup/USA Today poll approved of the way Obama handled his transition. Just 61% gave that response about George W. Bush in mid-January 2001, and 68% said the same about Bill Clinton in 1993.

Two-thirds of another poll's interviewees told NBC/ Wall Street Journal in December that they were pleased with Obama's appointments. By contrast 54% said they approved of Bush's and Clinton's choices during their transitions. In another new poll, 54% of respondents were extremely or quite confident that Obama supports the right set of goals and policies to be president. Just 40% gave that response about George W. Bush in early 2001.

Further, a new Pew poll showed Obama's personal favorability rating is much higher than George W. Bush's was when he took office--79% to 60%. In the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama even had stronger ratings than George W. Bush at a comparable time on representing "traditional American values," long considered a Republican strength.

Not only does Obama rate well against his predecessors, but he also outshines other Democratic leaders. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 66% have a positive opinion of him. Compare that figure to those earned by Hillary Clinton (56%), Bill Clinton (52%) and Nancy Pelosi (25%).

In addition, on virtually every personal attribute the pollsters have been examining, public opinion toward the new president has improved since the spring and summer.

In the past, Americans polled often said "I don't know" when asked to rate new presidents. Thirty-six percent didn't have an opinion about Ronald Reagan immediately after his inauguration, 43% said that about George H. W. Bush, 22% about Bill Clinton and 18% about George W. Bush. But today far more people feel they know Barack Obama, and the "don't know" responses are unusually low.

The pollsters are keeping close tabs on the new president. In the first 100 days of Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, they surveyed Americans about presidential approval four times. In the first 100 days of George W. Bush's presidency, the question was asked 37 times--or once every 2.7 days. The pace has since accelerated, with two pollsters, Gallup and Rasmussen, tracking views about Obama on a daily basis since the election.

There are very few red flags. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, a bare majority--52%--were concerned that Obama would go too far in providing financial aid and loans to corporations facing bankruptcy, but 42% were not worried. Forty-nine percent were concerned he would render the health care system large and bureaucratic and raise taxes, but almost as many, 46%, weren't nervous about these issues. And on all the other issues tested--from hastily pulling troops out of Iraq to appointing overly liberal Supreme Court justices to promoting a liberal agenda on social issues such as gay rights, more people polled were not concerned about his stances.

I don't know how long the president can bask in the glow of positive public opinion, but it's certain that his current overwhelming approval gives him considerable leeway to take action during his first 100 days.

Karlyn Bowman is a senior fellow 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
  • Phone: 2028625910
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    Name: Andrew Rugg
    Phone: 2028625917

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