President Barack Obama's public standing has slightly improved in the wake of stronger enrollment under the new health-care law, giving Democrats a rare positive development in an ominous midterm election season.
The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 44 percent of Americans approve of Obama's job performance, up from 41 percent in March as his administration scrambled to overcome the bungled rollout of the federal health-care website. Some 50 percent, down from 54 percent in March, disapprove. Assessments of Obama as a person also ticked up and back—barely—into positive territory for the first time since the crisis over the website last October.
That's what counts as a bright spot for Democrats as they battle to keep control of the Senate and avoid losing too much ground in the House this November.
"The president has moved from a wipeout position to a competitively negative position," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who helps conduct the NBC/WSJ poll. But as his Republican counterpart Bill McInturff added, "better" is not the same as "good."
The health-care law is now seen in a slightly less-negative light than in March. But a 46 percent plurality of Americans still call it a bad idea, compared with 36 percent who call it a good idea.
Women, one of Obama's core constituencies, no longer rate his performance negatively, as they did by 7 percentage points in March. But his net positive rating among women is only 4 percentage points now.
The president's poll standing matters because history shows it is a key indicator of how his party will fare in midterm elections. Presidents nearly always lose ground in midterms, but presidents with weak ratings sometimes lose a lot. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to regain a Senate majority.
Poll respondents split evenly at 45 percent on whether they want the election to put Republicans or Democrats in charge of Congress. But 63 percent of Republicans expressed high interest in the election compared with 47 percent of Democrats, a sign that the GOP may find it easier to get its supporters to the polls. Unmarried women, nonwhites and young voters—all critical to Obama's 2012 re-election victory—typically skip midterm elections in disproportionate numbers.
The survey showed Democrats with some advantages—especially as they look ahead to the election of Obama's successor in 2016. Assessments of the Democratic Party split evenly—46 percent positive, 47 percent negative. But assessments of the Republican Party are decidedly sour—25 percent positive, 43 percent negative. The tea party is viewed negatively by a 22 percent to 41 percent margin.
And the leading contender for the 2016 Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, enjoyed the strongest ratings of all politicians included in this survey. She was viewed positively by a 16 percentage point margin, while GOP hopefuls Rand Paul and Jeb Bush were both in negative territory.
Elections aside, the poll shows immense challenges facing both parties in attempting to brighten the public's mood about the economy. A 55 percent majority agreed with the statement that "the economic and political systems in the country are stacked against people like me." A similar 54 percent agreed that the widening gap between the rich and everyone else makes America "no longer a country where everyone, regardless of their background, has an opportunity to get ahead and move up to a better standard of living."
Large corporations and the financial industry were rated negatively by margins of more than 3 to 1. The federal government and national news media fared only slightly better—19 percent view the news media favorably, 48 percent unfavorably. The highest-rated institutions in the survey were the U.S. military, rated positively by 69 percent to 6 percent, and the high-tech industry, by 53 percent to 7 percent.
Americans divide sharply on the merits of free trade and globalization, which have been embraced by presidents of both parties as well as corporate America. A 48 percent plurality say "globalization has been bad because it has subjected American companies and employees to unfair competition and cheap labor"; 43 percent say it has produced jobs. Some 48 percent would be more likely to oppose a congressional candidate advocating free trade, compared with 43 percent who would be likely to back a free trader.
Though Americans disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy by 54 percent to 42 percent, the president still gets a surprising amount of slack for the conditions that President George W. Bush left him upon leaving office. A 47 percent plurality ascribe current economic conditions to the situation Obama inherited, while 39 precent say his policies are mostly responsible.
The telephone survey of 1,000 adults, conducted April 23-27, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.
—By CNBC's John Harwood.