WASHINGTON — TON - One year out before President Barack Obama faces voters in his bid for re-election, he encounters an American public that remains deeply pessimistic about the state of the country and its economy, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
Nearly three-quarters of respondents believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction; just 25 percent think the U.S. economy will improve in the next 12 months; and a solid majority says the country is experiencing the start of a long-term decline.
Those attitudes have helped shape their opinions of the president, with majorities disapproving of his overall job performance and his economic handling, and with nearly 75 percent saying that the Obama administration has fallen short of their expectations on the economy and improving oversight of Wall Street and the banks.
Yet despite those views, Obama continues to run ahead of the Republican presidential front-runners in hypothetical general-election match ups — leading former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by six points and former businessman Herman Cain by 15 points.
“Is he [Bill] Clinton or [Jimmy] Carter? I don’t think you can answer it right now,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
But Hart adds that Obama, right now, is facing an electorate whose hope — which the president famously campaigned on in 2008 — has been replaced by anger and fear.
“It is sort of the grim reality of keeping your chin above water,” he said. “It is the negative energy of fear and anger and rage.”
'We’re in the gutter'
Just how grim and negative is it? The poll asked respondents to give a single word or short phrase to best describe how they feel about where things stand in the country. Some of the answers:
“We are in the dump.”
“We’re in the gutter.”
Overall, 58 percent of these responses are negative, 33 percent are neutral and just 9 percent are positive.
What’s more, a combined 76 percent agree with the statement that the current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country, and that America needs to reduce the power of the banks and corporations.
That number includes 62 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of Tea Party supporters who agree with the statement.
And 53 percent agree with the statement that the national debt must be cut significantly by reducing spending and the size of government.
Strikingly, half of all respondents in the poll consider themselves supporters of either the Tea Party or the Occupy Wall Street movement, reflecting the current divisions in the country.
(Indeed, here was one answer on the open-ended question: “I feel sorry my children and grandchildren. We are headed for a socialistic nation.” And another: “I feel that things are tilted dramatically in favor of wealthy and a select few.”)
Glass half empty, glass half full
One year until Election Day 2012, the NBC/WSJ poll contains these glass-half-empty numbers for President Obama: For the third-straight survey, his job-approval rating stands at 44 percent, with 51 percent disapproving. Also, just 40 percent approve of his handling of the economy, which is up one point from October.
And nearly three-quarters of respondents say that his administration has fallen short on improving oversight of Wall Street and the banks (74 percent), on the federal budget deficit (74 percent), on the economy (74 percent) and on changing business as usual in Washington (72 percent).
The glass-half-full numbers: 52 percent approve of his foreign-policy handling, while a whopping 71 percent agree with the president’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by this December.
What’s more, a combined 71 percent say they like Obama personally; 60 percent believe he has inherited the current economic conditions; and more blame Wall Street bankers and George W. Bush than Obama for the economy.
But just two in 10 think his economic policies have helped the economy, while three in 10 contend they have hurt it. Almost half say they haven’t made much of a difference.
“This is no longer about who is to blame,” Hart said. “It is about who can get us out of our troubles.”
Obama leads Romney, Cain
Yet still, the president continues to lead his GOP rivals. He holds a six-point edge over Romney, 49 percent to 43 percent. And he runs 15 points ahead of Cain, 53 percent to 38 percent.
In a hypothetical three-way match up, Obama gets 44 percent, Romney gets 32 percent and Texas Rep. Ron Paul gets 18 percent. In another three-way contest, it’s Obama at 44 percent, Romney 35 percent and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at 13 percent.
But the president’s lead is narrower against a generic Republican in a two-way contest, with 45 percent saying they would “probably vote” for Obama, and 42 percent saying they would “probably vote” for the eventual GOP candidate.
(McInturff, the GOP pollster, argues to pay particular attention to how the president fares against a generic GOP candidate, because the eventual nominee’s poll position typically conforms to that set of numbers.)
Against Romney, Obama holds a sizable advantages on being compassionate and understanding average people; on being knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency; on being consistent and standing up for his beliefs; and on being a good commander-in-chief.
But Romney leads — albeit narrowly — on what’s shaping up to be the top issue in next year’s presidential election: having good ideas for how to improve the economy.
Romney, Cain lead the GOP pack
In the race for the Republican presidential nomination, the national poll shows Romney the first choice of 28 percent of GOP primary voters and Cain the first choice of 27 percent of Republicans.
They’re followed by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 13 percent, and Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry tied at 10 percent. No other Republican gets more than 4 percent.
A month ago — before sexual-harassment allegations first surfaced against Cain — the ex-Godfather’s Pizza CEO led the field at an identical 27 percent, with Romney at 23 percent and Perry at 16 percent.
“Mitt’s up, Perry’s down and Cain is steady in stormy seas,” Hart said.
In a two-way primary contest, Romney leads Perry by nearly a 2-to-1 margin, 62 percent to 33 percent. But against Cain, it’s dead even, with Romney at 49 percent and Cain at 48 percent.
The poll was conducted Nov. 2-5 of 1,000 adults (200 contacted by cell phone), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.