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Press Release · January 28, 2009

Californians Back President Obama’s Recovery Plan, Have High Hopes for Him Despite Worries About U.S. Economy

But They Take Dim View of State Leaders, Favor Lowering Two-thirds Requirement To Pass Budget

SAN FRANCISCO, California, January 28, 2009 — A majority of Californians support President Barack Obama’s economic recovery plan and see it as important in meeting the state’s infrastructure needs, according to a survey released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) with funding from The James Irvine Foundation.

As Obama begins his presidency, Californians express both high hopes for what he can accomplish and deep worries about the national economy. An overwhelming majority (79%) agree that he will be a strong and capable president — a much bigger vote of confidence than George W. Bush enjoyed among the state’s residents at the outset of his two terms in office (54% in January 2001, 51% in January 2005). With a Democrat in the White House and larger Democratic majorities in Congress, most Californians (81%) also say the president and Congress will be able to work together and accomplish a lot this year. This is an opinion held across party lines (90% Democrats, 79% independents, 66% Republicans) and despite Californians’ low approval ratings of Congress (37% approve, 56% disapprove). Asked about the new president’s multibillion-dollar economic recovery plan of tax cuts and investments in infrastructure projects, 57 percent of Californians say they are satisfied, and 82 percent say it is important (49% very important, 33% somewhat important) in addressing California’s infrastructure needs.

Despite their enthusiasm for the new president, Californians don’t see a quick fix for the troubled economy. A solid majority (71%) believe bad economic times lie ahead in the next year, and many residents believe they will suffer personally: 58 percent say they are concerned (37% very concerned, 21% somewhat concerned) that they or someone in their family will lose a job in the next year, and 5 percent volunteer that they or a family member has already lost a job.

Their pessimism grows when Californians are asked about their state. With a record-high budget deficit and state coffers nearly empty, the state’s residents give record-low ratings to their elected officials in their handling of the budget and economy. Just 30 percent approve of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance on these issues. The legislature fares worse: 14 percent of Californians approve of its handling of the budget and taxes, and 15 percent approve of its handling of jobs and the economy. Just 39 percent of Californians say the governor and legislature will be able to work together and accomplish a lot in the next year, with 53 percent saying the two branches will be unable to do so.

“We’ve seen a sharp turnaround in the last two years,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president, CEO, and survey director. “After the November 2006 election, Californians felt their governor and legislature would be able to work together, but that their president and Congress would not. Today, Californians’ hopes lie in Washington.”

With most state residents (75%) saying the budget situation is a big problem, support for fiscal reforms has grown. For the first time since this survey began asking the question in 2003, a majority of Californians (54%) say it would be a good idea to replace the two-thirds requirement for legislative passage of the budget with a 55 percent majority.

New Administration in Washington, New Hopes in California

Despite an ailing national economy, the state’s residents are optimistic about the change in national leadership:

  • Californians like what they see on the economy: 72 percent approve of Obama’s handling of economic plans and policies. Democrats (89% approve, 3% disapprove) and independents (70% approve, 13% disapprove) are strongly favorable, while Republicans are divided (40% approve, 39% disapprove).
  • They see the nation uniting behind Obama: 73 percent say the nation will be able to unite behind Obama to accomplish a lot in the next four years. In 2001, just 44 percent said the nation would be able to unite behind Bush; and in 2005, only 35 percent felt that way.
  • Fewer see the nation headed in the wrong direction. Although just 32 percent say the nation is headed in the right direction and 62 percent see it going in the wrong direction, this is a marked improvement from last August (21% right direction, 74% wrong direction). Californians are also much more optimistic than adults nationwide, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted in mid-January (19% right direction, 78% wrong direction).

Closer to Home: A Growing Appetite for Reform as State Fiscal Woes Increase

A record-high percentage (75%) of Californians say the state is heading in the wrong direction−a marked increase from January 2008 (54%) and dramatically higher than in January 2007 (37%). Across political parties, regions, and demographic groups, majorities of Californians hold this view. Their pessimism about the state’s economy has also increased greatly: 77 percent expect bad economic times in the year ahead, compared to 39 percent in January 2007.

Residents recognize that the budget situation is grim. Although they most frequently (42%) name jobs and the economy as the most important issue for the governor and legislature to work on, 25 percent of residents say the state budget is most important—the highest percentage since January 2004 (31%). As they have said since January 2008, when the deficit was much smaller, Californians today (44%) favor closing the budget gap with a mix of spending cuts and tax increases rather than primarily through cuts (33%), primarily through tax hikes (8%), or by borrowing money and running a deficit (7%).

Californians are generally dissatisfied with the governor’s recently released budget for the current and next fiscal years (59% dissatisfied, 34% satisfied). On the specifics of his proposal:

  • Alcohol excise tax: Residents overwhelmingly support raising it by 5 cents per drink (85% favor, 13% oppose).
  • Vehicle license fee: A majority favor raising it by $12 (58% favor, 41% oppose).
  • Sales tax: A slim majority favor temporarily increasing the state sales tax by 1.5 cents (52% favor, 46% oppose); 47 percent favor and 50 percent oppose extending the state sales tax to include services such as vehicle repair, veterinary services, and tickets to sporting events.
  • Cutting state employee compensation: Residents are divided (49% oppose, 45% favor). The governor has proposed requiring employees to take two unpaid days off a month, eliminating two holidays, and changing overtime rules.
  • Shortening school year: A majority oppose it (63% oppose, 35% favor).

While they appear willing to help reduce the budget deficit by increasing their own taxes, Californians are more eager to increase the taxes of others. Majorities favor raising the state income tax rate paid by the wealthiest residents (72%) and raising the state taxes paid by corporations (60%). But they remain opposed (55%) to borrowing money from future state lottery income to fill the budget gap, regardless of their political party (64% of Republicans, 55% of Democrats, 53% of independents are opposed).

A protracted impasse over the state budget appears to have made Californians more supportive of reforms in the budget process, as evidenced by their increased support for changing the two-thirds threshold for budget passage to 55 percent (54% in favor today, 46% in June 2003). And a strong majority (70%) support a strict limit on annual state spending increases. Support for a spending cap has not been this high since June 2003 (70%) when the PPIC survey first asked the question.

More Californians also favor lowering the two-thirds vote requirement on local special taxes to 55 percent. Half (50%) say this is a good idea—the highest level of support since the survey first asked this question in June 2003— while 44 percent are opposed.


  • Congress gets poor ratings – page 12
    Just 37 percent of Californians approve of the way Congress is handling its job, and an even smaller percentage—29 percent—approve of the way the nation’s legislative branch is handling economic plans and policies. However, this is an improvement over October, when 23 percent approved of Congress’ overall job performance.
  • Housing slump hits home – page 15
    Half of Californians (52%) say the housing downturn will hurt their personal financial situation a great deal (30%) or somewhat (22%). Latinos (67%), renters (59%), independents (55%), and Democrats (53%) are more likely to hold this view than whites (45%), homeowners (48%), and Republicans (43%).
  • Governor’s overall approval rating at 40% – page 16
    Governor Schwarzenegger’s approval rating has changed little in recent months but is down 18 points since January 2007 and 10 points since January 2008. It now stands at the same level as in January 2006, just after the 2005 special election.
  • Californians want to protect schools from budget cuts – page 19
    Most Californians (60%) say K–12 education is the area they would most like to protect from budget cuts, followed by health and human services (18%), higher education (12%), and prisons and corrections (6%).


This survey is the 34th in the Californians and Their Government series and is supported with funding from The James Irvine Foundation. It seeks to examine the social, economic, and political trends that influence public policy preferences and ballot choices. This is the 94th PPIC Statewide Survey in a series that has generated a database that includes the responses of more than 200,000 Californians. Findings are based on a telephone survey of 2,001 California adult residents interviewed from January 13-20, 2009. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The sampling error for the total sample is ± 2%. For the 1,621 registered voters it is ± 2.5% and for the 1,277 likely voters, ± 3%. For more information on methodology, see page 25.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of PPIC, where he holds the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Chair in Public Policy. He is founder of the PPIC Statewide Survey, which he has directed since 1998.

PPIC is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.