President Obama

President Obama attends the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Kim Ludbrook / European Pressphoto Agency / December 10, 2013)

WASHINGTON -- President Obama can’t yet claim to have turned a corner, but he does seem to have stopped a politically damaging slide in public approval for himself and his new healthcare law, new polling data indicate.

After seven months of steady decline, public approval of Obama’s job performance has ticked upward, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. The poll finds 45% of Americans approve of Obama’s work and 49% disapprove.

That’s the highest approval and closest margin since mid-summer, when the president’s ratings first turned negative. Obama’s low point came last month as the administration struggled to fix the HealthCare.gov website and placate Americans who had discovered, contrary to his promise, that their insurance policies were being canceled.

The problems of the last year – including the stalemate or defeat of major legislation on gun control and immigration, the standoff over the budget and the bungled rollout of the Affordable Care Act – have all taken a toll on how the public sees Obama. The percentage of those who say he is “not able to get things done” has risen steadily from a little more than one-third in the spring to just over half in the latest survey, which was conducted Tuesday through Sunday for USA Today.

But several factors continue to buoy the president, most notably the deep unpopularity of his opponents.

Only 21% of those surveyed said they approve of the job Republican leaders in Congress are doing, with 72% disapproving. Those numbers are essentially unchanged from the low point the GOP hit during the government shutdown in October.

Feelings about the Republican Party as a whole are also negative, with 35% having a favorable view and 59% an unfavorable one.

By contrast, the public divides almost evenly on the Democratic Party, 47% to 48%. Their view of congressional Democratic leaders is better than their view of the GOP, but still worse than their feelings about the president – 34% approve and 58% disapprove.

Americans divide sharply when asked if they have confidence in Obama on healthcare policy, with 50% saying they have a “great deal” or “some” confidence and 48% saying they have “little” or none. But their view of the GOP on that issue is much more one-sided, with only 32% expressing even “some” confidence and 66% having little or none.

Obama also can continue to draw on positive feelings the public has about him. His ratings on several key attributes, although lower than they have been during much of his presidency, remain positive. For example, just over half of Americans view Obama as “trustworthy,” down from roughly 6 in 10 during most of his presidency. That’s the lowest rating of Obama’s presidency, but still positive.

Similarly, 58% say Obama “cares about people like me” – a number that is down just slightly from the level he has seen during most of his tenure.

More than 3 out of 4 say he “stands up for what he believes in.”

In addition to doubting his ability to get things done, however, the public divides evenly on Obama’s leadership skills. Half of Americans see him as a strong leader, compared with 48% who do not.

As has consistently been true since the healthcare law passed, a majority of Americans disapprove of it, with just over half in the current survey disapproving of Obamacare. But those numbers are no worse than they were in September, before the law’s problem-plagued introduction.

And the percentage who say that elected officials who oppose the law should do what they can to make it fail, rather than try to fix it, has gone down. Just 1 in 5 Americans takes that view. Among self-identified Republicans, however, 40% say elected officials should try to make the law fail. And among Republicans who identify with the tea party, 60% want lawmakers to do what they can to make the law fail.

Among self-identified Democrats and independents, majorities either approve of the law or want lawmakers to find ways to make it work as well as possible.

Asked to assess several reasons that might have played a role in the healthcare law’s problems, a majority of Americans said each one had played a major role: poor management by the administration, flaws in the law, the complexity of the health insurance system and opposition from politicians who tried to undermine it.

Democrats and Republicans both cited the complexity of the health insurance system as a reason for the law’s problems. But a predictable partisan divide surfaced on the three other reasons, with nearly three-quarters of self-identified Democrats citing sabotage by opposition lawmakers as a major reason, while 8 in 10 Republicans cited mismanagement and flaws in the law.

The percentage of people who say the law has had a negative effect on the country has gone up, but the percentage who expect it to continue to be a negative in the future has declined. Americans are now closely divided on their expectations of the law’s future impact, with 39% saying they expect it will be mostly positive and 45% expecting mostly negative.

The slow but steady improvement of the economy may have helped Obama. The percentage of Americans rating their personal financial situation as “poor” -- 19% -- is the lowest since before the economic crash in 2008. One in 4 says his or her personal conditions are “fair” or “good.”

Just under half of Americans say they have a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of confidence that Obama will “do the right thing” on the economy. By contrast, just over one-third feel that way about Republican leaders in Congress.

Americans divide almost evenly on the question of whether Obama’s presidency so far has been a success (46%) or a failure (48%). That number closely mirrors the ratings that President George W. Bush received at roughly this point in his presidency. In Bush’s case, the  public’s view of his presidency continued to sour throughout his second term. Whether Obama can steady his presidency at its current level or rebound remains to be seen.

The survey was based on telephone interviews with 2,001 American adults. The margin of error for the full sample is plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

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david.lauter@latimes.com

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