WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's approval ratings have sunk to the lowest level of his presidency, so low that he'd lose the White House to Republican Mitt Romney if the election were held today, according to a new McClatchy Newspapers-Marist poll.
The biggest reason for Obama's fall: a sharp drop in approval among Democrats and liberals, apparently unhappy with his moves toward the center since he led the party to landslide losses in November's midterm elections. At the same time, he's gained nothing among independents.
"He's having the worst of both worlds right now," said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York, which conducted the national survey.
"As he moves to the center, he's not picking up support among independents, and he's having some fall-off among his base. If his strategy is to gain independents and keep the Democrats in tow, it isn't working."
The poll was taken Dec. 2-8, as the president proposed a two-year freeze on federal civilian workers' pay and cut a deal with congressional Republicans to extend expiring tax cuts — even those for the wealthy, which he'd opposed.
Overall, just 42 percent of registered voters approve of how he's doing his job, while 50 percent disapprove.
Obama's standing among Democrats dropped from a month ago, with his approval rating falling to 74 percent from 83 percent, and his disapproval rating rising from 11 percent to 21 percent.
Among liberals, his approval rating dropped from 78 percent to 69 percent and his disapproval rating jumped from 14 percent to 22 percent.
His position among independents remained virtually the same, with 39 percent approving and 52 percent disapproving. A month ago, it was 38-54.
The president's continued failure to rally independents could ruin his bid for re-election. A hypothetical 2012 matchup showed him getting the support of 44 percent of registered voters and Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, getting 46 percent.
Obama now is running slightly ahead of Republican former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, drawing 47 percent to Huckabee's 43 percent. Both results were within the poll's margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
He would easily defeat Republican former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, however; he'd get 52 percent of registered voters and she'd get 40 percent, if the election were held today.
The key in each matchup is independents.
Romney had the best advantage over the president among independents, preferred by 47-39 percent. Independents break for Obama over Huckabee by 42-40 percent. Palin fares much worse among independents. They favor the president over her by 52-35 percent.
"In head-to-head matchups, it's the independents who seem to be shaping the early discussion," Miringoff said. "We have a lot of polarization. And the middle is in its classic position of being the swing vote."
There was one sign that Obama's effort to "triangulate" by centering himself against both parties on the tax cuts issue may work; he ripped Republicans for favoring the rich and the Democrats for criticizing his deal to go along.
The poll found that voters are inclined to blame congressional Democrats and Republicans more than the president if the deal to extend tax reductions falls apart and taxes go up on Jan. 1.
On issues, registered voters lean in another direction, with 47 percent saying the top priority for the new Congress should be to cut the federal budget deficit and 22 percent saying it should be to cut taxes. Another 28 percent said that maintaining services and benefits should be the top priority.
They also think the people at WikiLeaks who revealed classified U.S. cables should be prosecuted rather than protected by the First Amendment, by 59-31 percent.
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