by Jim Norman and Aamer Madhani, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - Confidence has waned in the United States since President Obama's historic election four years ago, but most Americans are still optimistic about the next four years as the president heads into his second term, according to a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll.
After a bruising election season, and as Obama and Congress head into negotiations on how to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, 69% of Americans perceive the U.S. as a country greatly divided when it comes to the most important values. And perhaps because of this perceived divide, a vast majority - 74% - think Obama should emphasize programs that both parties support.
Majorities of Americans still think Obama will be able to accomplish such major policy goals as reducing unemployment, improving education, keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism and improving the health care system.
But on two hot-button issues - reducing American dependence on foreign oil and healing nation's political divide - Americans are more dour about Obama's ability to accomplish the goals than they were following his election four years ago.
In the case of reducing U.S. dependence on oil, the percentage thinking the Obama administration would do so slipped to 47% from 57% in November 2008. On the goal of healing political divisions in the country, confidence in Obama dropped to 33% from 54% in November 2008.
Still, the public is much more likely to see Obama and Democrats in Congress as willing to work with the Republicans in Congress than they are to see GOP lawmakers as willing to make a sincere effort to work with Obama and his party. But confidence in both the sincerity of Obama and in the sincerity of Republicans in Congress has plummeted since the last election.
In comments after his Nov. 6 election victory, Obama said the election suggests that a majority of Americans generally agree with his "balanced" approach to solving the country's deficit problem, but he has maintained that he is willing to work with GOP lawmakers to come to a solution.
Analysts said the poll shows that Obama has some leverage after his victory - and as he sits down for talks with Republican lawmakers on how to avert $600 billion in automatic budget cuts and tax hikes set to go into effect Jan 1- but the president is wise to be careful not to overplay his hand.
"Obama has a mandate to move the country forward in a bipartisan sort of way," said Elaine Kamarck, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "The takeaway is that (House Speaker) John Boehner ought to work with the president and make a reasonable deal ... and there are many out there to be made."
GOP lawmakers, including Mitt Romney's running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, said that Obama's victory, which was a near electoral landslide but a narrow victory in terms of popular vote, was not a mandate from the American people. Instead, he said, the voters chose a divided government.
A majority still sees Obama more as a uniter than a divider, though the percentage is down to 55% from 66% four years ago.
Much the same is true in terms of his favorability - a majority still has a favorable view, but it's not as high as it was in 2008.
Democrats overall have lost ground in the public's opinion, with a bare majority (51%) now holding a favorable view. They are still ahead of the Republican Party, though the gap between them has shrunk since the last presidential election.
Heading into the fiscal cliff negotiations, Obama has been pressed by labor and progressive organizations to resist raising the eligibility age on Social Security and Medicare, but 88% of poll respondents said it is extremely or very important that Obama take major steps to ensure the long-term stability of both programs.
"Voters think the programs are in trouble, and they want the president to fix them so they are stable and financially secure for the long term - not just defend the status quo, which they see as unsustainable," said Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, a domestic policy analyst at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
The nationwide poll of 1009 adults was conducted Nov. 9-12 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
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