Obama Approval Moves Ahead Though Challenges Remain

VIDEO: Obamas Popularity on the Rise

Aided by his response to the Tucson shootings, popular lame-duck legislation and a hint of economic relief, Barack Obama has matched his highest job approval rating in more than a year in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, with his ratings for empathy likewise rebounding.

It's a remarkable turnaround for a president so recently hammered in the 2010 midterm elections. Yet the public's mood remains glum, with attendant, continuing hazards for the president and Congress alike.

Fifty-four percent now approve of Obama's job performance, up 5 points from last month and 8 points above his career low in September. And given overwhelming approval of his response to the Tucson attack, Americans by an 18-point margin, 58-40 percent, say Obama "understands the problems of people like you." That's up from a mere 2-point split, 50-48 percent, in September.

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In another critical shift, albeit still with much room for improvement, 35 percent say Obama's economic program is making the economy better, while 24 percent say he's making it worse -- the positive result up by 5 points since September, the negative down by 9. Strikingly, the view that Obama's made the economy worse has eased most broadly in an unexpected quarter: down by 17 points among Republicans.

Concurrently, the president has inched back ahead in trust to handle the economy, a month after the GOP caught up with him on this issue for the first time.

Overall, just 13 percent describe the nation's economy positively; while still miserably low, that's up a 4 points from October to the most since February 2008. More significantly, the number describing the nation's economy as "poor" is down by 8 points since October, to 41 percent in this new survey, produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates.

Seventy-two percent say the economy should be a highest-priority issue for Obama and the Congress, far surpassing all others. And it's still plenty bad enough to keep the public in a snit: While 38 percent say the country is heading in the right direction, up 7 points since last month and the most since March, that nonetheless leaves 60 percent who continue to say the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track.

Obama Gains in ABC News/Washington Post Poll

COMPETITION -- In terms of Obama's competition with the new Republican leadership of the House, 44 percent think the country should go in the direction Obama wants to lead, while 35 percent prefer to follow the Republicans in Congress. On one hand, that's a 9-point advantage for Obama; on the other, it's short of majority preference for either side. And independents, the country's political centerweight, divide essentially evenly on the question, 37-36 percent. Obama does better because Democrats outnumber Republicans.

At the same time, this rating is far weaker for the Republicans now than it was for the Democrats when they took control of Congress four years ago; at that time 57 percent preferred the congressional Democrats' direction to the incumbent president's. Then again, George W. Bush's approval rating in January 2007 was a dismal 33 percent, 21 points below Obama's today.

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