WASHINGTON - Facing a pallid economy and continuing war, President Obama's support in Minnesota appears to be eroding significantly, particularly among independents who helped him ascend to the White House 18 months ago, a Star Tribune Minnesota Poll has found.
Only 44 percent of Minnesotans in the poll expressed approval for the way Obama is handling his job as president, with an equal number saying they disapprove.
That's a seven-point drop in the president's statewide approval rating since September, when 51 percent of Minnesotans said they approved of the job he was doing. That figure was down from 62 percent in an April 2009 poll, less than six months after his historic election victory.
"I voted for him," said poll respondent John Heintz, a 28-year-old freight operations manager from Cottage Grove. "If I had to do it over again, I would not."
Heintz, who worries about rising government spending and the cost of Obama's signature health care legislation, said that for him, "It's been a 180-degree swing."
The poll of 902 Minnesota adults was conducted last week amid mixed news on the economic recovery, fresh revelations of trouble in Afghanistan and a continuing debate in Congress about joblessness, which remains at 6.8 percent statewide. The telephone poll for the first time included cell-phone users and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points.
Just days after Obama signed a sweeping Wall Street reform law, and with the administration's $787 billion economic stimulus package now in full swing, only 42 percent of poll respondents said they approve of Obama's handling of the economy, compared with 51 percent who disapprove.
On the president's handling of the war in Afghanistan, only 37 percent expressed approval, while 46 percent said they disapproved.
"People are certainly not happy about Afghanistan," said pollster Larry Hugick, of Princeton Survey Research Associates, which conducted the Minnesota Poll. "When people are unhappy with the big domestic issue and the big foreign policy issue, you're not going to come out looking good."
Obama's job approval rating in Minnesota appears to be lower than it is nationally. Typical was a recent Newsweek poll that found him at 48 percent approval, with 46 percent disapproval.
One big difference is the relatively large number of Minnesota Poll respondents who say they are undecided. At 12 percent of the total, that's double the national rate of 6 percent.
Some Minnesotans are not enthusiastic, but aren't willing to say they don't approve.
"I'm kind of on the fence," said Monica Basaker, a 45-year-old finance manager from Stillwater. "I'm not thrilled by what he's doing, but he's got an extremely difficult task at hand. I don't think 18 months is long enough to see what he can do."
Hugick said Obama's overall approval rating remains better than his rating on individual policies such as health care, where only 40 percent of Minnesotans registered approval, compared with 50 percent who disapprove.
"We saw the same phenomenon with Ronald Reagan at certain points," Hugick said. "Obama actually gets a better rating overall than from any individual item, save the oil spill. That's the best news for him."
Obama's handling of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a major news story for the past three months, earned him the approval of 45 percent of poll respondents, compared with 42 percent who disapprove.
'A vote for hope'
With midterm elections three months away, the poll also found a sharp partisan divide in Minnesota. Only 12 percent of Republicans in the survey approved of the job Obama is doing, compared with 78 percent of Democrats.
Subsequent interviews with poll respondents on both sides of the aisle showed a certain disillusionment with the Obama presidency. The most pronounced was among independents, who tend to disapprove of the job he is doing by a margin of 48 to 40 percent.
Albert Heurung, a 36-year-old computer technician in Rochester, said he voted for Obama in 2008. "It was a vote for hope," he said. "The whole platform of his campaign was change."
But Heurung said he was turned off by continuing government bailouts of the banking and auto industries, started under President Bush, as well as by new Obama stimulus spending, which Heurung thinks was weighted too much in favor of "pork barrel government projects."
His conclusion about Obama now: "He's just another politician."
Another political independent, 63-year-old Janet Bender, a semi-retired child care worker in Baxter, said that while she was never a big Obama fan, she had hoped for the best once he was elected. But now, she said, "It's no different. Unemployment is still high, and foreclosures are happening every day."
Obama backers such as Jessica Lobl, a 23-year-old kindergarten teacher from Rochester, said some people might have expected too much.
"Just him being elected president isn't going to change everything right away," Lobl said. "Yeah, he hasn't been as impressive as maybe we'd hoped for immediately, and a lot of people are disillusioned with that. But I think he's trying."
For some on the left, there is still support tinged with disappointment. "I guess, I've lost a little bit of my election vigor," said Brett Klooster, a 27-year-old computer programmer from St. Louis Park. "But in general, I think he's done an OK job."
Klooster, a Democrat, said he would like to have seen health care reforms go further, though he doesn't necessarily blame Obama. "I would have preferred a single-payer system," he said. "But I completely understand there weren't the votes for it. There was hardly the political will for getting the current health care bill passed."
For Klooster, as for many liberals, another sore point is the war in Afghanistan. "I don't think a good decision has been made about getting troops out of there," he said.
But dissatisfaction with Obama appeared to center more on the economy, the likely battleground in the fall elections.
Daniel Morris, a 61-year-old contractor from Jordan who leans Republican, said his opinion of Obama has only become worse with time. He opposed the health care plan, calls the stimulus a "flop," and believes Obama's war policy is "all over the place."
"One thing I'll give him credit for," Morris said. "He's been upfront, and did what he said he was going to do, change America. Well, he's doing it. But, in my opinion, it's not for the good."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.