Better Job Rating, Advantage on Debt Limit Mark the Start of Obama's Second Term

Barack Obama approaches his second term with his highest job approval rating since his first year in office (save for a brief bin Laden bounce) and a clear upper hand over the deeply unpopular Congress - including majority support for his demand to decouple talks on the debt ceiling and budget cuts.

With another showdown on the nation's borrowing limit looming, 58 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll say the debt ceiling should be handled separately from the debate on spending cuts. Thirty-six percent instead favor linking the two, as the Republicans in Congress seek - a position that drew a tart response from the president Monday.

See PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

If it comes to a standoff, moreover, just 22 percent in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, indicate they're willing to have the federal government default on its debt obligations or partially shut down if budget cuts can't be agreed. And the president leads the GOP leadership in trust to handle the issue by a 14-point margin.

The results are perhaps unhelpful to House Speaker John Boehner, who said Monday, "The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time." That followed Obama's comment that failing to lift the debt limit would be "irresponsible" and "absurd"; he called the linkage to budget cuts "a ransom."

TERM 2 - Obama, more generally, is in comparatively fine fettle, particularly given the public's still-unresolved economic concerns. Fifty-five percent approve of his job performance overall, the most since November 2009, save for a blip at 56 percent immediately after Navy SEALS killed Osama bin Laden in spring 2011.

The president's rating compares with 19 percent approval for Congress - matching its lowest at or near the start of a new session in polls by ABC and the Post, or Gallup, since 1975. (It was the same as now in 2009.)

The Democrats in Congress get a 37 percent approval rating; the Republicans, a dreary 24 percent. Obama's premium in approval over the Democrats in Congress is about his usual (18 points now vs. an average of 16 points), but he's got a stronger hand than usual against the Republicans - a 31-point approval advantage now, compared within 25 points on average since he took office.

Still, Obama's rating suffers from extreme partisanship: Ninety percent of Democrats approve of his job performance overall; a mere 17 percent of Republicans approve, with independents, at 54 percent approval, tipping the scale. The current 73-point Democratic-Republican gap in Obama's approval rating is close to the average in his presidency to date, 68 percent - higher than for any of his four predecessors in ABC/Post data.

In any case, overall, 61 percent of Americans rate Obama as a strong leader, the most in nearly three years; 55 percent say he understands the problems of average Americans, the most in two years (and a key to his successful re-election campaign); and 53 percent say they're optimistic about the policies he'll pursue in the next four years.

That latter shows the comedown a second-termer can expect; in a similar question when Obama first took office, far more, 68 percent, expressed optimism about the policies he'd pursue. That's 15 points lower now - but, all the same, very similar to the 51 percent optimism that greeted George W. Bush at the start of his own second term.

Further - and potentially a key card in negotiations ahead - the president is far less likely than his Republican counterparts to be seen as insufficiently willing to compromise on important issues. While 48 percent say Obama is doing too little to give ground in negotiations, many more, 67 percent, say that about the Republican leadership.

BUT STILL - That's not to say all's perfect for the president by any means. Fifty percent approve of his handling the economy, matching last month at a level not exceeded since November 2009. But it's a tepid score all the same - and more "strongly" disapprove than strongly approve, by a 13-point margin. That negative intensity, marking continued economic discontent, could trip up Obama in the months ahead.

Further underscoring the president's risks, most Americans, 57 percent, continue to say the country is headed pretty seriously off on the wrong track - down from 69 percent as recently as last August, and from 77 percent in fall 2011, but still a negative reading, and thus a hazardous one. Indeed, among people who say the country's headed in the right direction, 95 percent approve of the president's job performance; among those who say it's on the wrong track, that dives to 27 percent.

Another comparison provides some context: Marked against previous postwar presidents at the start of their second term, Obama's approval rating is numerically better than just two - Richard Nixon in 1973 (51 percent) and George W. Bush in 2005 (52 percent). Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton all were better off.

There are, of course extenuating circumstances; Obama's had the misfortune to preside over the longest and deepest economic downturn since the great depression, taking him from a high of 69 percent approval in April 2009 to a record-low 42 percent 15 months ago. He's been inching back as the economy's weakly recovered, and his rating now is a scant 3 points better than his career average 52 percent in ABC/Post polls since he's taken office.

GROUPS - The partisan differences in the president's rating, while striking, are reflected in differences among other groups as well. Obama's approval rating is 41 points higher among nonwhites (85 percent) than whites (44 percent). It's 42 points higher among the non-religious compared with evangelical white Protestants. And the gap is 53 points between liberals (82 percent of whom approve of the president's work) and conservatives (29 percent).

While other gaps aren't as vast, the president's rating is 17 points higher in urban areas than in the suburbs, and 27 points higher in cities than in rural areas; 20 points higher among adults younger than 40 than among those 40 and up; 15 points higher among adults with post-graduate degrees than among those who started but haven't finished college; higher in the Northeast than in the Midwest (by 15 points) or the South (by 12 points); 12 points higher among lower- to middle-income adults than among the better-off financially; 12 points higher in 2012 "blue" states than in the red ones; and 10 points higher among women than men.

Many of these groups, of course, are themselves differentiated by partisan and ideological preferences, and those unquestionably are the driving forces in assessments of the president's performance. The question, in this so heavily partisan age, is how much room is left for him to win and hold allegiance in the four years ahead.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 10-13, 2013, among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, including landline and cell-phone-only respondents. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 33-24-37 percent, Democrats-Republicans-independents.

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.