Obama’s political advisers have long been preparing for a more competitive campaign this year than his race against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. That is borne out in a hypothetical matchup against Republican front-runner Mitt Romney. In that test, 47 percent support the former Massachusetts governor, and 46 percent back the president.
That nearly even split shows up repeatedly in the new poll. Obama’s job ratings are 48 percent approval and 48 percent disapproval. On questions of whether he is a strong leader, or empathetic or in sync with respondents on values, the country is closely divided.
An approval rating below 50 percent is hardly a strong starting point in an election year, but for a president whose approval had dipped as low as 42 percent last fall, returning to even is a clear improvement.
Obama spent much of the fall in a pitched battle with congressional Republicans over jobs and the economy, and he won a December face-off over a temporary extension of a payroll tax cut. In that time, his ratings improved somewhat on the issue of job creation, with 45 percent approving of his performance and 51 percent disapproving. Those are are among his best numbers on the issue in the past two years.
Public attitudes are even more stubbornly negative regarding his management of the economy in general, although there, too, assessments are better now than they were a few months ago. Much still depends on the trajectory of the economy. The unemployment rate has dipped to 8.5 percent, as four consecutive monthly declines brought an end to a more than two-year streak with the jobless rate consistently hovering around or above 9 percent.
Obama continues to receive more positive than negative reviews of his handling of international affairs in general, and most approve of his work dealing with the threat of terrorism, although here he has lost some ground from the big increase he received in the aftermath of the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden last year.
The president earns less solid ratings on the possibility of Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon. Republican presidential candidates have been extremely critical of Obama’s posture toward Iran. The Post-ABC News poll found that 48 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of this issue and 33 percent approve. Nineteen percent expressed no opinion.
Obama begins the year with a good boost from the Democratic base, whose enthusiasm is critical to his reelection prospects. Most Democrats, 53 percent, say the country is heading in the right direction, a 21-point increase since September. Two in three say they see a rejuvenated economy, up 19 points from November.
Obama has a narrow edge over congressional Republicans on job creation overall, but that again turns into a near-tie among independents. Three times as many independents say they are in worse shape since Obama took office; that’s slightly more negative than it was for former president George H.W. Bush in January 1992, the year he sought reelection. (At 35 percent among independents, Obama’s approval rating on the economy tops Bush’s 24 percent.)
One key theme of the campaign is breaking in Obama’s favor. By 55 percent to 38 percent, more Americans consider inequality the bigger economic issue than over-regulation of free enterprise. A majority of independents say inequality is the bigger issue.
Nearly three-quarters of those focused on government overreach would support Romney in a matchup with Obama, while slightly more than six in 10 who say the economic system is tilted toward the wealthy would back the president.
Obama trails Romney among independent voters, but he is not without strong pushback. By a ratio of greater than 2 to 1, independents fault former president George W. Bush more than Obama for the current economic problems. Most — 56 percent — view Obama as someone who “sticks to his principles.” Even 44 percent of Republicans credit the president on this front, far above the 13 percent overall approval rating he receives from them.
The telephone poll was conducted Jan. 12 to 15 among 1,000 randomly selected adults. The results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.