NATION

On eve of State of the Union speech, Obama enjoys steady rise in polls

Obama's rising approval ratings are now clearly a trend, not a blip: Small, but significant

A month ago, looking at rising polls for President Obama, we posed the question "trend or blip?" With several more weeks of data, there's now clearly an answer -- it's a trend, small but significant.

As Obama puts the final touches on his State of the Union speech, his approval rating with the public has clearly risen enough to be consistently measurable and politically important.

The latest evidence comes from the Washington Post/ABC News poll, which finds 50% of Americans approving of Obama's performance in office, with 44% disapproving. That's a seven-point increase in that poll's approval rating since the fall and the president's best showing in nearly two years.

The increase in the Post/ABC poll is the biggest bump for Obama among seven recent opinion surveys. All but one of those, however, have shown increases.

The increases aren't huge -- on average, Obama has gone from approval in the low 40s during the run-up to the midterm elections to a position in the middle to high 40s in the most recent surveys -- but they add up. In Gallup's weekly averages, for example, Obama has gone from a nine-point deficit in early December to a two-point deficit so far in January.

Even though Obama won't be running for office again, that trend matters. To preserve his policies against assault from the Republican Congress, Obama needs to rely on unity among Democrats. He's far more likely to get that support if members of Congress see his approval with the public as steady or rising.

The example the White House wants to avoid would be that of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. His approval rating had dropped to the low-30s by the time of his 6th-year mid-term election and never recovered. Instead, Obama's standing now more closely resembles that of Ronald Reagan at this point in his presidency, although it remains below that of Bill Clinton in his second term.

Obama operates in a far more polarized environment than did Reagan. In these times, presidents seldom manage to gain the support of the other party's backers. Instead, they rise or fall based largely on their ability to keep their backers unified. Bush suffered from a sharp drop in support among Republicans. Obama, so far, has avoided a similar problem.

Indeed, Obama's rise in recent polls has come about in part because of increased approval among parts of his coalition -- most notably Latinos, who responded positively to his executive action shielding several million unauthorized immigrants from deportation.

He has also benefited from a steadily improving public view of the economy, brought about by significant improvements in the job market and declining gas prices.

Gallup's latest survey found that 41% of Americans were "very" or "somewhat" satisfied with the nation's economy last week. That's up from just 28% a year ago. If economic conditions continue to improve, as most forecasters expect, Obama could look forward to at least somewhat more improvement in his ratings.

One last note -- as many polls have found, the Post/ABC survey discovered strong public dislike for gridlock in the federal government. Two-thirds of those polled called the inability of the two parties to find common ground a "major problem."

But that doesn't mean the public is any more united than its elected representatives. Asked which way the country should head, 35% said the U.S. should follow Obama's lead, 34% said it should follow the lead of the GOP in Congress and the rest either wished for some other choice or said they did not know.

The Post/ABC poll was conducted Monday through Thursday of last week among 1,003 Americans aged 18 and older. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

For more on politics and policy, follow @DavidLauter on Twitter.

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