Disapproval of President Obama’s handling of the economy is heading higher — alongside gasoline prices — as a record number of Americans now give the president “strongly” negative reviews on the 2012 presidential campaign’s most important issue, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Increasingly pessimistic views of Obama’s performance on the economy — and on the federal budget deficit — come despite a steadily brightening employment picture and other signs of economic improvement, and they highlight the political sensitivity of rising gas prices.
The potential political consequences are clear, with the rising public disapproval reversing some of the gains the president had made in hypothetical general-election matchups against possible Republican rivals for the White House. Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) now both run about evenly with Obama. The findings come just five weeks after Obama appeared to be getting a boost from the improving economy.
Gas prices are a main culprit: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say they disapprove of the way the president is handling the situation at the pump, where rising prices have already hit hard. Just 26 percent approve of his work on the issue, his lowest rating in the poll. Most Americans say higher prices are already taking a toll on family finances, and nearly half say they think that prices will continue to rise, and stay high.
Friday’s employment report showed a gain of 227,000 jobs in the past month, continuing an upward trend and offering the White House something positive to point to. Still, the survey — conducted Wednesday through Saturday — finds 59 percent of Americans giving Obama negative ratings on the economy, up from early last month. Now, 50 percent give him intensely low marks, the most yet in a Post-ABC News poll, and a jump of nine percentage points.
The negative movement has also stalled what had been a gradual increase since the fall in the president’s overall approval rating. In the new poll, 46 percent approve of the way Obama is handling his job; 50 percent disapprove. That’s a mirror image of his 50 to 46 positive split in early February. The downshift is particularly notable among independents — 57 percent of whom now disapprove — and among white people without college degrees, with disapproval among this group now topping approval by a ratio of more than 2 to 1, at 66 versus 28 percent.
These groups are also the ones whose shifting support has re-shuffled prospective general-election matchups. Among registered voters, Obama is now on par with Romney (47 percent for the president, 49 percent for Romney) and Santorum (49 to 46 percent). Previously, Obama held significant advantages over both.
The Republican presidential race is now a contest between Romney and Santorum. Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independent voters, 33 percent favor Romney for the nomination; 29 percent prefer Santorum. This is the first Post-ABC poll after Santorum’s emergence as a top-tier candidate. Trailing the top two are former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) at 14 percent and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) at 12 percent.
The poll offers some conflicting evidence about the president and the still flagging national economy. In addition to low ratings on his handling of gasoline prices, Obama’s approval rating on the deficit hit an all-time low, with a slender 32 percent giving him positive marks. Among independents, 70 percent disapprove here, also a new high.
Even on foreign policy — a onetime strong point — Obama’s ratings look worse. For the first time in nearly a year, as many Americans disapprove as approve of his handling of the war in Afghanistan. On Iran, a slim majority now disapproves of how he is dealing with the possibility of the country obtaining nuclear weapons.