President-elect Barack Obama is generating a huge amount of goodwill as he prepares to assume power on January 20. Eighty-two percent of Americans approve of the way he is handling his presidential transition, an increase of 3 percentage points since early December, according to the latest poll by CNN/Opinion Research Corp.
In contrast, President George W. Bush had a 65 percent approval rating during his transition in 2000, and Bill Clinton had a 67 percent rating in 1992. And a new USA Today survey shows that Obama is the most admired man in America, with 32 percent of respondents giving him that distinction. President Bush was second with 5 percent. It was the first time a president-elect was rated the most admired man since Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. (Hillary Clinton was the most admired woman, with 20 percent.)
Why is Obama doing so well? His choices for his cabinet and White House staff have been popular, as have his promises to win congressional approval for a massive economic rescue package, which is still evolving.
But the most important factors in his popularity appear to be Americans' optimism that things will get better with a change at the White House (only 28 percent of Americans approve of Bush's job performance, according to an American Research Group poll) and Obama's capturing of the mood and faith of the country in many ways, according to Democratic strategists.
Americans are "more confident in his style, more confident in his strength, in the way he addresses problems, and in his nonconfrontational way of bringing people together," says Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. He adds that these impressions sunk in at the start of the economic crisis last fall and have deepened since then.
"People want to see action, pragmatic bipartisan action in the interest of the country," Greenberg says. "They want to see fast movement on policy to get things done, but they know it will take a while."
One set of numbers in the new surveys stands out. Although 59 percent say the economy is getting worse, according to the ARG poll, the same percentage—59 percent—say the national economy will be "better than today" a year from now. That appears to be a remarkable example of optimism and a belief that Obama can indeed improve things in relatively short order, the strategists say.
Obama seems to have a gift for public relations. During his current vacation in Hawaii, he made sure to visit the troops on Christmas Day, and he got a very warm welcome as their soon-to-be commander in chief. This reassured some of the doubters that Obama is sensitive to the military and will maintain close ties to the rank-and-file.
His vacation schedule has been filled with activities that reinforced the idea that he will be a vigorous, active leader. His early morning trips to a local gym for workouts got massive publicity, as did his rounds of golf and those photos of him, shirtless and in good physical condition, walking amid the tropical foliage. And his staff made it clear that he was continuing to talk with his advisers about the economy, national security, and the many other problems facing his administration.
But some supporters, while they agree that things are going well for Obama, warn that once he actually takes office, the positive perceptions could change quickly. "Obama has a good team, and it looks like he's going to govern from the center," says Al From, chief executive officer of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. But From adds that "Obama's challenge will be in the crunch. . . . It's what he delivers that will count, what he does for ordinary people."