Obama’s job approval rebounds in latest polls, but can it last?

The latest polls show Obama's job approval back up to 50 percent. His response to Tucson and the bills passed by the lame-duck Congress are credited, but the economy remains a challenge.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle depart after joining government employees on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington Jan. 10 to observe a moment of silence for Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of a mass shooting in Tucson, Ariz. Obama's response to the shooting is seen as a reason behind a bump in popularity.
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On the second anniversary of his inauguration – and days before his State of the Union address next Tuesday – President Obama is on the rebound with the American public.

A slew of major polls now show Mr. Obama with more public approval than disapproval of his job performance, many of them putting him over the 50 percent mark. A survey of the latest polls by RealClearPolitics shows Obama averaging 50 percent approval versus 45 percent disapproval. The last time the positive outweighed the negative was in July. The last time that gap was at least 5 percentage points was a year ago.

Pollsters attribute Obama’s rebound to his response to the Tucson shootings, some positive economic trends, and the burst of bipartisanship in last month’s lame-duck session of Congress. But, they warn, this surge could be fleeting, as unemployment remains stubbornly high and the feeling of national unity post-Tucson fades.

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“It’s a remarkable turnaround for a president so recently hammered in the 2010 midterm elections,” write Gary Langer and Julie Phelan in an analysis for ABC News. “Yet the public’s mood remains glum, with attendant, continuing hazards for the president and Congress alike.”

In the ABC News/Washington Post poll, released Jan. 18, Obama came in with a 54 percent job approval, and 43 percent disapproval. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday showed Obama at 53 percent approval, up 8 percentage points from last month. Disapproval was 41 percent, down from 48 percent in December.

The NBC/WSJ poll also showed Obama gaining ground among independents, from 35 percent approval to 46 percent. This is a critical group of voters whom the Democrats lost in November and Obama needs to hold onto if he is to win reelection in 2012.

Warning signs for GOP

When asked to label Obama politically, 40 percent of all those surveyed chose “moderate,” compared with 45 percent “liberal” and 11 percent “conservative.” The number for moderate is the highest the NBC/WSJ poll has ever found for Obama, including before his inauguration.

The poll also contained warning signs for the Republican Party, which took control of the House just two weeks ago. Only 25 percent of respondents said the Republicans in Congress “will mostly bring the right kind of change to the country,” compared with 42 percent who said that about the Democrats in January 2007 and 37 percent who said that about the Republicans in January 1995.

“I think this has been a pretty short Republican honeymoon,” said Bill McInturff, the Republican co-pollster on the survey, to NBC News.

Another new poll out Thursday shows Americans relatively more optimistic than pessimistic, when asked how they think Obama will do over the next two years compared with the last two years.

Overall, 50 percent of Americans surveyed said they thought Obama would do “about the same,” according to the Gallup/USA Today poll. But 39 percent said he would do better, compared with 10 percent who said worse, a net positive of 29 percentage points. Even Republicans scored the president in net positive territory, with 23 percent saying they thought he’d do better and 16 percent saying he’d do worse. Fifty-nine percent of Republicans thought Obama would do about the same.

More conservative policies sought

The poll also found that 50 percent of Americans think that Obama should pursue policies that are more conservative in the next two years, versus 17 percent who said more liberal and 30 percent who said “about the same.”

On the economy, 43 percent of Americans said they thought the economy would improve over the next two years. But, a Gallup analysis says, the president’s ability to directly affect the economy is somewhat limited, whereas he can have more impact on how the public views his ideology.

“The new poll suggests that [Obama] would fare best on that score by adopting more conservative policies, rather than adopting more liberal ones or even standing still,” writes Gallup analyst Lydia Saad. “With Republicans wielding more power on Capitol Hill, that could also help Obama satisfy Americans’ desire that Republican and Democratic leaders focus on finding common ground.”

Indeed, in his State of the Union speech, Obama is expected to focus in part on the nation’s high debt and deficits – a big issue in particular for Republicans. The question is how far he will go in adopting their approach of spending cuts over tax increases, and how his liberal base will respond.

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