Public lowers expectations for Obama second term

President Obama , in an early Monday afternoon status report, said that an agreement to avoid the fiscal cliff was "in sight. But it's not done." CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press

President Obama begins his second term with low expectations, according to the latest public opinion survey from the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll.

That’s probably a good thing, since second terms often go awry; historians speak of the “second term curse.”

Consider Bill Clinton, impeached and then acquitted, for lying under oath about his sexual affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, the investigation of which consumed his second term. Ronald Reagan was ensnared in the Iran-Contra scandal, involving the illegal sale of arms to Iran in an effort to return U.S. hostages, and the diversion of the profits to support troops seeking to overthrow the communist government of Nicaragua – a violation of a law prohibiting funding for the conflict. George W. Bush’s second term was hobbled by two increasingly unpopular wars and the early days of the financial crash that triggered the Great Recession.

The NBC/WSJ poll found 52 percent of American adults approve of Obama’s overall job performance, with a slightly smaller 49 percent giving a thumbs-up to his handling of the economy. And there is solid support for two of the top items on Obama’s early agenda: stricter gun control measures and reform of the immigration system to provide a path to citizenship to some long-time illegal immigrants to the U.S.

Still, there is uneasiness. Pollsters found a split in opinion on how Obama will fare in his second four years – 51 percent said they were “optimistic” or “satisfied.”

By comparison, a combined 48 percent say they are “uncertain” or “pessimistic.”

Asked another way, 43 percent are optimistic about the next four years, while 35 percent are pessimistic; 22 percent have a mixed opinion.

The uneasiness stands in contrast to four years ago, when Obama’s first inauguration inspired sky-high expectations, and outright joy among his supporters, at the inauguration fo the natino’s first black President.

“If 2009 was all about hope, 2013 is about the ability to cope,” said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with GOP pollster Bill McInturff.

This year, more than seven in 10 are dissatisfied with the current state of the economy, and just more than a third are either “very” or “fairly” confident in Obama’s ability to promote a strong and growing economy.

And 60 percent believe the coming year will be a time to hold back and save money because they anticipate harder times ahead.

The poll reveals a lack of buoyancy in looking ahead,” Hart, the Democratic pollster, told NBC. Added GOP pollster Bill McInturff: “This feels like a long four years, and it feels like a long four years ahead.”