President Obama and members of Congress have both hit new approval-rating lows as they begin the post-Labor Day political season, according to national polls released Tuesday.
With the economy stagnant, Obama and the GOP Congress find themselves at or near record-low levels of unpopularity. The dismal figures set the stage for the burgeoning presidential campaign and a fall showdown between Obama and Republicans on jobs and deficit reduction.
Obama enters those fights at the lowest political point of his presidency. Forty-four percent of Americans said they approve of the way Obama is doing his job, while 51 percent disapprove of the president, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted late last week.
Obama's poor ratings appear to stem from deep dissatisfaction with his handling of the economy, as disapproval of his economic management soared to new highs in both the NBC/Journal and ABC/Post polls. Fifty-nine percent of Americans disapproved of how Obama is handling the economy in the NBC poll, while 62 percent said the same in the ABC poll.
The dismal numbers raise the stakes for Obama's jobs speech Thursday evening before a joint session of Congress. A report Friday that showed the economy added no new jobs in August already established just how much the president has riding on the speech.
The president still enjoys some breathing room to maneuver politically on those issues, according to the polls. Fifty-six percent said in the NBC poll that Obama largely inherited the poor economy. And he enjoys a slight advantage over Republicans in the ABC poll in terms of whom Americans trust more to handle the economy. (On the issue of who's better trusted to create jobs, Republicans are tied with Obama, at 40 percent.)
But the president's political adversaries in Congress hardly find themselves in a better political position as they gird for autumn clashes on spending and jobs.
Eighty-two percent of Americans said they disapprove of the way Congress is doing its job, according to the NBC/Journal poll, the highest dissatisfaction number on record. Just 13 percent approve of Congress's job performance, nearly matching the lows lawmakers encountered in the fall of 2008, just after the collapse of the U.S. financial industry.
More specifically, Republicans in Congress face their lowest approval numbers since the fall of 2008, when Democrats increased their House and Senate majorities in that November's election. Sixty-eight percent of Americans disapprove of GOP members of Congress, and 28 percent approve of the Republicans, who control the House but not the Senate.
Whether these numbers translate into a clear political advantage for one of the two major parties is another story.
Obama leads the two leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination — Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) — though not by much. Forty-seven percent of registered voters said they would vote for Obama in a match-up against Perry, according to the NBC poll, while 42 percent would choose the Texas governor. A race against Romney would be slightly tighter; 46 percent of registered voters said they would pick Obama, and 45 percent would elect Romney.
But perhaps underscoring the political difficulties the president faces nationally, voters said they're more inclined to vote for the eventual Republican nominee. Forty-four percent said in the NBC/WSJ poll they would probably vote for a (nameless) Republican against Obama, while 40 percent preferred Obama.
Republicans also have re-established a narrow advantage over Democrats in the generic congressional ballot for 2012. Forty-seven percent of registered voters said they would prefer to see a Congress in GOP control as an outcome of the 2012 elections; 41 percent prefer a Democratic Congress, while 12 percent were unsure.
The NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted Aug. 27-31, has a 3.1 percent margin of error. The ABC News/Washington Post survey was conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 1, and has a 3.5 percent margin of error.