Poll: Obama's 1st year gets mixed verdict 

You're likable enough, Barack.

But while nearly nine in 10 people like President Barack Obama personally, he earns decidedly mixed reviews in a new Associated Press-GfK poll judging his first year in office, a verdict darkened Tuesday by a stunning repudiation of his party in the Massachusetts Senate race.

His approval ratings have been becalmed for months, 56 percent in the survey out Wednesday. By a modest margin, people still think the country is moving in the wrong direction, as they have since summer. And the Republican upset in Massachusetts demonstrated just how perilous the political landscape has become.

But two years after Obama famously told his Democratic primary opponent Hillary Rodham Clinton, "You're likable enough, Hillary," that appraisal seems to have settled firmly on him.

Even three-quarters of Republicans say they personally like Obama.

But such personal good will came to little in Massachusetts, where Republican Scott Brown defeated Democrat Martha Coakley in a race seen as a referendum on Obama's first year in office as well as on his health care initiative.

A president's likability can be a precious political commodity, but it proved to be one without coattails in the Senate contest.

To be sure, the excitement of Obama's inauguration and the inflated expectations of that time are gone. His approval ratings have been in the 50s since July, sliding from 74 percent a year ago.

Hopes that he would become an extraordinary president have been tempered during a year of economic calamity, an escalating war in Afghanistan and sharp elbows in the health care debate, the poll suggests.

Fading, too, though, are worries that Obama is in over his head.

Fewer Americans register a concern that the former one-term Illinois senator is doing too much too fast in the White House or lacks the gravitas to take on big problems. Even some people who don't like his policies credit him with a capable approach.

"I think he's on top of things," said Ken Jensen, 66, a retired economist in Woods Cross, Utah, and a Republican. "I admire him for his ability to put on a different necktie and approach a different problem in a competent way."

An opponent of Obama's plans for health care and much else, Jensen said the president is doing right by Haiti and, in responding to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner, "got it right" after a bumbling start on the first major domestic terrorism challenge of his presidency.

With Obama's out-of-the-gate plans to reinvent the health insurance system, restore economic stability and take big steps in energy, the environment and more, Americans appeared nervous about an upended status quo even as they were drawn to the promises of change.

In the summer, nearly half of Americans thought Obama was trying to do too many things too quickly. That's starting to turn around, according to the poll. An increasing number of people — especially Democrats — want him to pick up the pace even if not all are exactly sure what he should do.

"He stood for change, change, change," said Shira Callaway, 32, a self-employed marketer in McDonough, Ga., who voted for Obama in 2008. "I think that something needs to hurry up and be done. I don't know what it should be, but something needs to be done a little bit faster."

Two-thirds in the poll agreed with the phrases "he understands the problems of ordinary Americans," ''he will keep America safe," ''he cares about people like you" and "he is a strong leader," a modest decline from three-quarters or more before his inauguration.

Most of that decline comes from sinking appraisals by Republicans, while his leadership ratings among independents have gone down much less and remain overwhelmingly favorable among Democrats. Before the inauguration, even a majority of Republicans said those phrases described Obama at least somewhat well.

The survey found no signs of Obama fatigue despite the president's frequent TV appearances. Only 30 percent, mostly Republican, said that he's been on TV too much.

Paul Gonsoroski, 44, a South Bend, Ind., Republican who owns a molding-injection business, sees Obama "dog-paddling fast with this health care bill" and was upset when the president broke his pledge to let C-SPAN into House-Senate negotiations so citizens could see them.

"You can't make boldface promises like that and then not at all entertain the idea," he said. Besides, "if you are a tax-and-spend politician, you just aren't one of my favorites."

But asked if he likes Obama personally, Gonsoroski didn't miss a beat. "Yeah," he said. "I'd play basketball all day long with him. I'd have a beer with him."

In the 2000 campaign, Republican George W. Bush came to be seen as the candidate people preferred to have a beer with, instead of Democrat Al Gore. Likability helped Democrat Bill Clinton, too, but not his party.

Despite being broadly liked early in his presidency and holding approval ratings a little higher than Obama's after his first year in office, Clinton saw his fellow Democrats lose control of Congress in the 1994 elections.

With Democratic majorities at stake again, the new AP-GfK poll found that 49 percent would like to see the party keep control of Congress in November while 37 percent want Republicans to take over.

Viewed closer to home, though, the survey also pointed to an anti-incumbent mood that would put the Democrats at a disadvantage if it lasted until November and is not unusual in a midterm election year: 47 percent wanted their member of Congress out and someone new in.

Also in the poll:

—42 percent rated Obama as an above average or outstanding president. A year ago, 65 percent expected him to be.

—The economy continues to be the dominant concern, and Obama's 47 percent approval rating on handling the economy has hardly budged for months.

—48 percent trust Democrats more to handle health care; 38 percent trust Republicans. But respondents were split 42-42 percent on the package being considered by Congress. That was a slight increase in support for the plans.

—59 percent expect their taxes to increase under Obama, up from 35 percent a year ago.

—49 percent trust Democrats more on the economy; 40 percent trust Republicans.

—46 percent say the Obama administration has shown higher ethical standards than the Bush administration, while 30 percent say they are about the same.

—54 percent approve of his handling of terrorism, one of his strongest ratings on issues.

The poll was conducted Jan. 12-17 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,008 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.

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