WASHINGTON - As he enters his 100th day in office, President Barack Obama enjoys higher marks from the American public than his most recent predecessors did at similar points in their presidencies, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
More than six in 10 approve of Obama's job, nearly two-thirds view him favorably, and a majority believe he has gotten off to a solid start during his first three months on the job.
Perhaps most significantly, Americans so far find him to be likeable. More than 80 percent in the poll say they personally like Obama, even if they don’t agree with all of his policies. And respondents give him high scores on his personality, demeanor and leadership qualities.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, says these numbers suggest “someone who is wearing well” with the public at this stage of his presidency. McInturff, in fact, even compares Obama’s early likeability to Ronald Reagan’s in the 1980s.
Yet the poll also contains a few cautionary numbers for Obama and his young administration: a growing number believe the president is liberal; a majority thinks he’s trying to take on too many issues; and there are concerns about all the government spending.
“The wind is at his back,” Hart says. But looking ahead to the next 100 days, the Democratic pollster adds that Obama might “face some pretty stiff headwinds in his future.”
Obama’s first 100 days have been marked by several highs (the economic stimulus’ passage, progress on a budget creating a framework for health-care reform, the rescue of Capt. Phillips from Somali pirates) and several lows (rising unemployment, confirmation troubles, furor at those AIG bonuses).
Despite these ups and down, the president remains quite popular. According to the poll, 61 percent approve of Obama’s job — that’s compared with George W. Bush’s 56 percent and Bill Clinton’s 52 percent at this same juncture in their presidencies.
Also, 64 percent view Obama favorably versus 23 percent who see him in a negative light — once again, higher than Bush’s and Clinton’s scores on this question.
In addition, 54 percent believe the president is off to a “great” or “good start;” 59 percent say he’s accomplished a “great deal” or a “fair amount;” and 64 percent feel more hopeful about the direction of the country with Obama in office.
What’s more, a whopping 81 percent say they like him personally (51 percent like him personally and approve of most of his policies, and another 30 percent like him personally but disapprove of his policies).
“How popular can this guy be?” Hart asks. “The answer is exceptionally popular.”
Indeed, as other recent national polls have shown, Obama’s early popularity has seemed to increase the number of Americans who believe the nation is headed in the right direction.
In the NBC/Journal poll, 43 percent say the country is on the right track, compared with an equal 43 percent who say it’s on the wrong track.
Yet that’s a 17-point jump since January, when just 26 percent believed the nation was on the right track. And it’s a 31-point increase since October 2008, when only 12 percent thought that.
“That’s an extraordinary movement,” McInturff says. “It means after 100 days that he has latitude to really govern with some potency.”
Warning signs for Obama
Still, the poll — which was taken April 23-26 of 1,005 adults (including 100 reached by cell phone), and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — contains some warning signs for the Obama administration as it looks ahead to the next 100 days and beyond.
For starters, the number of Americans who view Obama as “very liberal” or “somewhat liberal” has spiked 10 points, from 49 percent in January to 59 percent now.
Moreover, 52 percent believe that the president is trying to take on too many other issues, versus 43 percent who say he has a clear and sharp focus on the economy.
And concern about the administration’s spending and the size of the budget deficit ranks in the poll as one of the public’s top two negative impressions about Obama. (Nearly seven in 10 think the budget deficit is a real number that has a direct impact on the average citizen.)
But the poll suggests a public appetite for Obama’s legislative priorities on health care and energy. By a 56-to-37 percent margin, respondents say they support expanding health insurance coverage and raising taxes on the wealthy to help pay for it.
And by a 58-to-35 margin, they favor charging a fee to companies that emit greenhouse gases — even if that will results in higher utility bills — and using that money to provide tax cuts for middle-class Americans.
A tough start for the GOP
While the poll finds that Obama is off to a solid start in these first 100 days, the same isn’t necessarily true for the GOP.
Just 29 percent have a positive view of the Republican Party, while 44 percent view it negatively — the 32nd consecutive NBC/Journal poll showing it with a net-negative rating.
By comparison, the Democratic Party has a net-positive rating, 45-to-34 percent.
Also, a majority of respondents in the poll say congressional Republicans have been too stubborn in their dealings with Obama. On the other hand, just 25 percent believe that Obama has been too stubborn, and 48 percent think the president has struck the right balance.
“While the Republicans are trying to be the loyal opposition, the public doesn’t see it that way,” says Democratic pollster Jay Campbell, who works with Hart.
And even though they’re no longer in office, the poll shows that George W. Bush (with a 26 percent positive rating) and Dick Cheney (18 percent) remain unpopular.
Mixed takes on interrogation
In the last several days, President Obama’s release of old Bush administration memos detailing controversial interrogation practices has dominated the political discussion. According to the poll, 53 percent say the United States tortured detainees, versus 30 percent who say it didn’t.
However, a plurality — 46 percent — believe harsh interrogation techniques have helped extract important information to stop terrorism. Forty-two percent say those techniques have undermined the country’s moral authority and have inflamed anger in the Islamic world.
And more than six in 10 oppose any kind of criminal investigation into whether the Bush administration committed torture.
McInturff says these findings suggest that Americans don’t want to litigate the past. “This is a country that wants to move on,” he said. “What people are saying is, ‘Bad things may have happened… But whatever happened, it is in the past.’”
Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.