When President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney meet in Denver tonight for the first of three debates, the conversation will almost certainly turn to Obama's economic performance in the White House. It is a subject on which opinions are neatly divided. According to a recent Esquire/Yahoo! News poll, 45 percent of Americans fault the president for mismanaging job creation.
A roughly equal number responded that Obama made the most of a bad economic situation, with 49 percent of the general population responding that the chief executive did "as well as he could." The poll results have a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points among the general population.
Obama has repeatedly argued that his predecessor is chiefly to blame for the recession, and a plurality of Americans agree: 26 percent of Americans blame George W. Bush for the current unemployment level. Another 22 percent blame Congress, while only 17 percent blamed the sitting president.
[See more graphics at Esquire.com]
As for Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the debate presents a ripe opportunity for him to convince Americans that he feels their pain. When asked whether the candidates are in touch with the raw economic issues facing American families, 54 percent answered affirmatively for Obama while only 38 percent answered yes for Romney.
This may be another symptom of Romney's difficulty connecting with voters—74 percent of Americans saying they have little or nothing in common with him. Another explanation may be how Americans perceive each candidate to have reached their success: the survey gave an example of an advantage either candidate might have had in his career; for Romney, wealth and connections, and for Obama, affirmative action programs.
Among the general population, 85 percent think Romney benefited at least somewhat from his family's wealth and connections, while 53 percent think Obama gained a lot or some advantage from affirmative-action programs. Among those who did believe there was some benefit to either man, more were comfortable with the idea that affirmative action benefited Obama—62 percent—than that family wealth aided Romney—44 percent.
The poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Sept. 7-10, 2012, among a random national sample of 1,002 adults. View the full results (pdf).