Will high approval ratings boost Obama's leverage in 'fiscal cliff' talks?

Friday brought a better-than-expected jobs report and the highest approval ratings for President Obama since the killing of Osama bin Laden. Maybe more important, the public believes he'll be able to improve the economy over the next four years.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
In this September file photo, President Obama speaks at a campaign event at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. At the same time Friday brought a better-than-expected jobs report, a new poll shows Obama with his highest approval rating since the killing of Osama bin Laden.

As if to bolster the argument that President Obama has the upper hand in "fiscal cliff" negotiations with congressional Republicans, Friday’s news brought both a better-than-expected jobs report and a new poll showing Mr. Obama with his highest approval rating since the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The jobs report showed, contrary to expectations, almost no negative impact from hurricane Sandy or the looming fiscal cliff, with 146,000 jobs created in November. The unemployment rate ticked down to 7.7 percent – although that was in part because more job-seekers dropped out of the hunt. 

At the same time, an Associated Press/GfK poll shows Obama’s approval rating now stands at 57 percent, up 13 percentage points from this time last year.

To some extent, that’s probably just the impact of the election (a winner always tends to look more appealing in the eyes of the public). But that doesn’t mean the president can’t leverage that popularity in the current negotiations. He could also plausibly argue that the public backs his vision for the economy, since the poll showed 54 percent of Americans believe Obama will be able to improve economic conditions in his second term – though only 40 percent now expect it to improve over the next 12 months, down from 52 percent before the election.

Of course, 63 percent of Americans still describe the economy overall as “poor.” But that number has dropped from an eye-popping high of 86 percent back in August 2011, after the debt-ceiling debacle – something neither party wants to repeat.

In terms of what else the public believes Obama will be able to accomplish in his second term, strong majorities expect the president will be able to implement his health-care law and remove all US troops from Afghanistan. But in a sign that Americans remain skeptical about the likelihood of a true “grand bargain” with Congress on deficit reduction, only 40 percent say Obama will be able to reduce the federal budget deficit over the next four years. And only 37 percent now describe him as an “outstanding” or “above average” president – far below the 65 percent who described him in those terms after he first took office.

One big second-term stumbling block for most presidents, Bloomberg’s Mike Dorning wrote this week, tends to be contentious relations with Congress – an area where Obama has so far shown little inclination for real improvement. And in general, second terms tend to be far less productive for most modern presidents, in part because term limits effectively make them into “lame ducks” almost from the get-go. That means if there's a window for Obama to accomplish much of anything, it's probably in the next year or so. The fiscal-cliff talks could be one of the few opportunities he has this term to leave a big mark – if he's able to wrangle a long-term deal.

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