Public mood in the US presents a challenging context for Obama’s re-election

US President Barack Obama may be enjoying a bounce in the polls this week after last week’s Democratic convention, but GlobeScan’s contextual polling suggests that he faces a much more challenging environment in terms of public attitudes than his predecessor George Bush did when seeking re-election in 2004.
Going into the 2004 election, 72 percent of Americans trusted their federal government to act in the best interests of society, and 60 percent believed that their children and grandchildren would have a better quality of life than they did. Yet in 2012, only 47 percent have such faith in their national government, while the proportion of those who believe that their children and grandchildren will have a better quality of life has fallen to 32 per cent.
In 2004 the dominant issue was foreign policy, and the incumbent was in a secure position. Twice as many Americans cited terrorism as a serious concern as cited the economy, and 64% viewed military force as an effective way to combat it—effectively endorsing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 67% saw America’s role in the world as positive, legitimizing Bush’s unilateralism.
President Obama enjoys no such positive consensus on the current issue of the day—economics. Despite improvement over the past three years, nearly half of Americans (44%) still feel themselves to be worse off than a year ago, and a similar proportion (48%) are pessimistic about their leaders making economic progress over the next twenty years. Indeed, while in 2002 79 percent of Americans felt that America was doing a good job of reducing international terror—indicative of a strong alignment between the government’s actions and society’s wishes—today Americans are more likely to blame the government for their economic problems than they are to blame private enterprise (19% say they government is most to blame, as opposed to just 2% who blame managers and companies).
Despite the favourable environment for President Bush in 2004, he won only narrowly, with 51% of the popular vote. With another closely fought election looming, the social optimism that was present in 2004 is missing. While positive economic and social data are not necessarily required for re-election, President Obama will have to hope the American public blame their woes on his predecessor if he hopes to clinch a victory in this very different backdrop.
Finding from the GlobeScan Radar, Wave 2, 2012 
This post was written by former GlobeScan Research Director, Sam Mountford.