Aided by comparison to the vastly unpopular Congress, Barack Obama has advanced to a 49 percent job approval rating in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll - his best showing since spring, and one that, if it holds, that may put his re-election prospects back within reach.
The result continues an improving trend for the president amid some signs of economic gains. And it contrasts with both parties in Congress, embroiled in their latest game of political chicken. A mere 27 percent of Americans now approve of the Democrats in Congress, and just 20 percent approve of the Republicans - both new lows in ABC/Post polling back to 1994.
Obama's rating, while still (barely) under 50 percent, is up from his career-low 42 percent in October, and back at the level at which he could run competitively for a second term. George W. Bush had 47 percent approval as close as three months before he won re-election in 2004.
The question in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, is whether Obama's rating merely reflects blowback against the machinations of Congress. Its latest budget brouhaha put a possible government shutdown back on the table until Saturday, and still threatens extension of the current payroll tax cut. As much as he might like to run against Congress, Obama's actual opponent - the eventual GOP nominee - may be less of an easy mark.
As things stand, Obama's regained a substantial (now 15-point) advantage over the Republicans in Congress in trust to protect the middle class, 50-35 percent, after seeing his edge on the issue shrink to 4 points last month. He's also moved ahead in trust to handle taxes, 46-41 percent, after trailing in October; and runs about evenly in trust to handle the economy and job creation.
ECONOMY - While Obama gets just a 41 percent approval rating for handling the economy, that's numerically his best on the issue since April and 6 points above his career low in October. However, far more still "strongly" disapprove than strongly approve, by 43 to 17 percent, a negative intensity that puts him at risk. (He's also got an intensity deficit on overall approval, albeit at 9 points, a less garish one.)
Similar to the economy number, just 39 percent approve specifically of Obama's performance creating jobs, with 55 percent disapproving. Again, though, it's been worse, with disapproval having peaked at 62 percent in September. Unemployment slipped to less than 9 percent in November, and last week's Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index, while still deeply depressed, reached its highest level since July among Americans who hold full-time jobs.
Just more than half of Americans, 52 percent, are pessimistic about the economy overall. But 61 percent are optimistic about their personal financial prospects in the year ahead. And it makes a difference: The president's approval rating among people who are optimistic about their personal finances is 18 points higher than it is among pessimists, 55 percent versus 37 percent.
The difference is even wider based on views of the future of the national economy more broadly. Among those who are optimistic about the economy in the year ahead (disproportionately Democrats, it should be noted), 67 percent approve of Obama's performance as president. Among economic pessimists, that dives to 33 percent.
GROUPS - Obama continues to hang tough in his own party; 82 percent of Democrats approve of his job performance overall, compared with a mere 19 percent of Republicans. In the middle are independents, who've outnumbered both Democrats and Republicans continuously for the past 2½ years, an unprecedented period since ABC/Post polls began in 1981.
Forty-four percent of independents now approve of Obama's work, while 51 percent disapprove. That's a highly cautionary note for his re-election prospects, whatever his overall rating, given independents' customary role as the quintessential swing voters in presidential elections. Still, he's up by 10 points from a career-low 34 percent approval from independents in October. They've also fueled his advance in trust to protect the middle-class.
While the focus is on the top race, there also are challenging results for both parties - especially the GOP - in terms of congressional sentiment. Fifty-one percent of Democrats approve of their own party's performance in Congress; while hardly good, that's better than the GOP's rating, 38 percent approval, among its party's faithful.
Independents, meanwhile, scorch both parties, offering just 20 and 17 percent approval of the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, respectively. That could make it a hot political year ahead not just in the presidential race, but for incumbents of all stripes.
METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Dec. 15-18, 2011, among a random national sample of 1,005 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points for the full sample. The survey was produced for ABC News by Langer Research Associates of New York, N.Y., with sampling, data collection and tabulation by Abt-SRBI of New York, N.Y.