An Improving Economy Gives Obama His Game Back

(J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

An improving economy is putting Barack Obama back in the game, boosting the president and his party in a striking turnaround from their devastating midterm losses.

Americans approve of the president's job performance by 50-44 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, a remarkable 9-point gain in approval and a 10-point drop in disapproval just since December. It's his best rating in a year and a half, and matches his previous best one-time advance, after U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden in spring 2011.

See PDF with full results, charts and tables here.

Further, while 56 percent in this poll, produced for ABC by Langer Research Associates, still say the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track, that's down by 12 percentage points since late October to its lowest since fall 2012, just before Obama's re-election.

The economy is driving these changes. Three months ago just 27 percent said it was in good shape. Today 41 percent say so, the most since April 2007, before the onset of the Great Recession and its long aftermath. People who rate the economy positively are vastly more likely than others to approve of the president's performance and the country's direction alike.

These shifts give Obama some political traction after a year in the political wilderness. The public now divides, 40-36 percent, in whom it trusts more to handle the main problems facing the country, Obama or the Republicans in Congress. That's gone from +4 for the GOP last month to today's +4 for Obama. Again, economic sentiment is largely responsible.

Obama's rating specifically for handling the economy is hardly stellar, a 48-48 percent split. But that's up 6 points in approval from late October.

ISSUES - If the economy is providing new wind in Obama's sails, some issues are puffing along for him as well. This poll finds broad backing, 61-34 percent, for his position on the Keystone oil pipeline, in a question that focuses on the specific dispute at hand - whether to approve it now or await a needs assessment. He has narrower but still majority support (53 percent in both cases) for his plan for free community college tuition and for maintaining Obamacare's rule mandating employer-provided insurance for 30+-hour workers. (A GOP proposal would make it 40+ hours.

At the same time, the public is pushing back against Obama's executive action on immigration, with 56 percent saying Congress should block it. That reflects conflicted views on the issue of immigration reform, with the devil very much in the details.

More generally, Obama has a vast 61-22 percent advantage over the Republicans in being seen as having better ideas on how to help more students afford college, and a 17-point lead in dealing with climate change. Those shrink to much closer divisions on a range of other issues - helping the middle class (+8 Obama), creating jobs (+5 Obama), increasing home ownership (+1 Obama) and encouraging economic development (+6 GOP).

One additional issue may indicate challenges for Obama and the Republicans alike in any deal to try to repatriate offshore corporate profits by cutting the corporate tax rate. In a notably lopsided result, 65 percent of Americans say large business corporations pay too little in taxes; just 19 percent say they pay their fair share

DIVISION - Close divisions mark political attitudes more broadly. The public splits, 50-46 percent, on whether or not it's justified for Obama to take executive actions to bypass Congress. And people divide just as evenly, 49-46 percent, on whether or not it's justified for Congress to pass new laws or sue to block such actions. (These two questions, naturally, attract political and ideological opposites.) There's an additional split on who's taking the stronger leadership role in Washington, Obama or the congressional Republicans, 42-40 percent

In another telling example, Americans divide almost exactly evenly, 35-34 percent, on whether they'd like the country to go in the direction in which Obama wants to lead it, or in the direction set by the Republicans in Congress. It's notable, moreover, that a quarter says that neither of those directions is what they're looking for - a sign of continued disaffection from both parties.

That sentiment shows up in bold in a further question: A near-unanimous 91 percent say government dysfunction is a problem for the country, and 66 percent call it a major problem. When those who call it a problem are asked whose fault that mainly is, a fifth pick Obama, a fifth pick the GOP - and six in 10 blame both equally.

There's further division on what the political future may hold. On one hand, Americans by 33-20 percent are more apt to say the new Republican-controlled Congress will be better rather than worse than the last Congress. But a plurality, 44 percent, expects no change. About as many expect no relief from government dysfunction more generally, with another split on whether this will get better (23 percent) or worse (29 percent)

All this frustration is reflected in declining party allegiance: As has been the case almost continuously for the past six years, more Americans identify themselves as independents, 37 percent, than as either Republicans (24 percent) or Democrats (30 percent, up 4 points from last month's nearly 34-year low).

GROUPS - Some changes in Obama's approval rating from last month are especially striking. He's up by 19 points among 18- to 29-year-olds, 13 points among nonwhites (including 22 points among Hispanics), 12 points among adults with less-than $50,000 incomes and 10 points among Democrats. But he's also gained in less-hospitable groups - by 13 points among non-college educated white men, 11 points among men overall and 11 points among conservatives.

There are some similar patterns in views that the country is headed in the right direction, up from late October by 21 points among nonwhites (including 26 points among Hispanics) and 16 points among Democrats, vs. just 3 points among Republicans, despite their party's gains in Congress.

HISTORY - Given the hard knock the Democrats took in November, Obama could be in worse shape. At about this point after his party's losses in 1994, Bill Clinton trailed the Republicans in Congress by 24-61 percent in being seen as taking the stronger leadership role. Obama, as noted, is even on this score.

Previous approval ratings also are illustrative. George W. Bush's party's hammering in 2006 was part of a long, painful tailspin for his presidency. At this point in his career, amid unhappiness with the war in Iraq, Bush had 33 percent job approval - a number that makes Obama's 50 percent look almost good. In other comparisons, Clinton had a 63 percent approval rating at this point in his presidency, while Ronald Reagan's was 50 percent - identical, as it happens, to Obama's today.

METHODOLOGY - This ABC News/Washington Post poll was conducted by landline and cellular telephone Jan. 12-15, 2015, in English and Spanish, among a random national sample of 1,003 adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of 3.5 points, including design effect. Partisan divisions are 30-24-37 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.