President Obama, strengthened by his adjustment to Republican gains and his response to the Tucson shootings, approaches next week's State of the Union address with renewed political momentum, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.
The poll found that Obama's job approval rating has rebounded to 53 percent from 45 percent last month.
It also shows that he approaches upcoming fights with Republicans in Congress benefitting from greater public confidence in his ability to find common ground than his partisan adversaries enjoy.
For his Jan. 25 speech to Congress, "he will walk into the hall with a great deal of confidence and the wind at his back," said Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who conducts the NBC/WSJ survey with Republican counterpart Bill McInturff. "The last six weeks has been the best six weeks the president has had" since his first year in office.
For Republicans, McInturff added, it was been a "short honeymoon" since they won control of the House and gained strength in the Senate in November's mid-term elections. Not only do a plurality of Americans regard the GOP negatively, but 55 percent predict that Congressional Republicans will be "too inflexible" in dealing with the president. That gives Obama added leverage, since just 26 percent predict Obama will be too inflexible.
Part of Obama's new strength with the public comes from the compromises he struck with Republicans over tax cuts and other issues in the lame-duck session of Congress late last year. Among other effects, the poll showed, the proportion of Americans describing Obama as "liberal" shrank to 45 percent from 55 percent one year ago; the proportion describing him as "moderate" increased to 40 percent from 30 percent.
"The president has shown both efficacy and empathy."
Another component, the pollsters said, come from Obama's message of reassurance and unity after the recent Tucson shootings that killed six people and gravely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. "The president has shown both efficacy and empathy," Hart said.
Those developments represent a positive sign for Obama's 2012 re-election prospects. The survey shows Obama holding a double digit lead over former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in prospective re-election matchups.
But Hart cautioned that the underlying public anxiety over the economy that helped drag down Obama and his party in 2010 has hardly vanished. The president's summit today with President Hu Jintao of China, in which Obama continued to press for greater opportunities for U.S. companies to expand exports and hiring, reflects the administration's continuing challenge in turning the economy around and shrinking an unemployment rate that still tops 9 percent.
The poll shows that Americans themselves are worried that China may eclipse the U.S. economically. Asked which nation would lead the world 20 years from now, 38 percent identified China, while 35 percent identified the U.S.
That reverses findings from the mid-1990s, when Americans remained confident by wide margins that the U.S. would retain the upper hand. The telephone survey of 1,000 adults, conducted by telephone January 13-17, carries a margin for error of 3.1 percentage points.