Obama Approval Moves Ahead Though Challenges Remain

VIDEO: Obamas Popularity on the Rise
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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.

One key issue is better for the GOP: For the first time in ABC/Post polling, Obama and the Republicans are tied in trust to handle health care reform -- with trust in Obama dropping 9 points since last month to a new low, and trust in the Republicans gaining a scant 4 points. A Republican-backed vote to repeal the health care law is scheduled for this week.

On this, it's independents making the difference; they've moved from a 50-35 percent preference for Obama on health care a month ago to a 48-31 percent tilt toward the GOP today. (There'll be more from this poll on health care in a forthcoming analysis.)

More broadly, approval of Congress is up by 5 points, but from a near-historic low to simply very, very low -- 28 percent. (Bad as it is, that's its highest since February 2008.) New House Speaker John Boehner's approval rating stands at 39 percent -- lower than Nancy Pelosi's when she took over as speaker in 2007 (54 percent), while about the same as Newt Gingrich's starting mark, 35 percent, in 1995. Many, 33 percent, have no opinion of Boehner; his initial disapproval, 27 percent, is about the same as Pelosi's, and 10 points lower than Gingrich's.

While both Obama and the Congress have ticked up in their ratings, the Tea Party political movement's gone in the other direction -- a 7-point increase in the number of Americans who see it unfavorably, now 52 percent, more than half for the first time. That includes a 10-point increase among Democrats, to 74 percent unfavorable, and 8 points among independents, to 50 percent. Republicans are much more apt to see the Tea Party favorably -- 59 percent do so.

Obama Gains in ABC News/Washington Post Poll

Notably, twice as many Americans now see the Tea Party "strongly" unfavorably as strongly favorably, the widest division in intensity since ABC and the Post first polled on the movement last February. A key reason is that just 27 percent of Republicans strongly favor the movement, while twice as many Democrats, 52 percent, see it strongly unfavorably.

And there's Sarah Palin, measured in this survey in terms of her response to the Tucson incident. As reported Monday, just 30 percent approve. And as with the Tea Party, Palin's strong disapprovers (specifically on the Tucson shooting) outnumber her strong approvers by 2-1.

ISSUES -- Some of Obama's ratings on handling individual issues, while still tepid, are up from their lows. His 46 percent approval on handling the economy compares with a low of 41 percent in September. He's +5 on handling the deficit from last month, albeit just to 43 percent. And his 49 percent approval on Afghanistan is slightly up from 45 percent last month.

At the same time his approval rating on health care, at 43 percent, matches his career low.

Trends on trust to handle issues are similar. As noted, the Republicans in Congress have pulled even with the president in trust to handle health care; on others Obama's improved. He's got a 46-41 percent edge in trust to handle the economy, vs. an essentially even rating last month. Trust to handle the deficit has gone from +8 GOP last month to a scant +3 Obama now. And the president's gained especially in trust to handle Afghanistan, now with a surprising 52-31 percent advantage; the winter lull in casualties may be a factor.

In terms of priorities for Obama and the Congress in the year ahead, as noted, the economy rules, with 72 percent calling it a highest priority, little changed from 76 percent at this point last year. Following it are the deficit, called a highest priority by 50 percent; education and health care, both 43 percent; and terrorism, 42 percent.

Lower-tier issues in terms of top priorities include taxes and the war in Afghanistan, both cited by 31 percent; immigration issues, 24 percent; and global warming, 16 percent.

Obama Gains in ABC News/Washington Post Poll

ELEMENTS -- As noted, there seem to be three elements to Obama's rebound in approval overall. One is the easing of criticism on the troubled economy, an issue very closely linked to presidential approval. Another is the lame-duck legislation; in an ABC News/Yahoo! News poll earlier this month, 77 percent approved.

And the third is broad support for Obama's response to the Tucson shootings. As previously reported, 78 percent approve, including seven in 10 Republicans and conservatives. And one of Obama's significant advances in his overall job rating in this poll is among Americans who call themselves "somewhat conservative" -- a 10-point boost, to 40 percent approval.

METHODOLOGY -- This ABC News-Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 13-16, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,053 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points.

The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y, with sampling, data collection and tabulation by TNS of Horsham, Pa.

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