President Obama is enjoying a surge in public approval as he marks the midpoint of his term, with independent voters who were instrumental to Republican victories in last year's congressional elections beginning to swing back to the president.
The uptick, arriving in time for the second anniversary of Obama's inauguration, follows a lame-duck congressional session that was seen as successful for the White House and comes after the president's well-received speech on the Tucson shooting tragedy.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released Wednesday night showed Obama's job approval rating at 53%, representing an 8-percentage-point jump since mid-December and his highest since July 2009. Surveys from CNN/Opinion Research and ABC News/Washington Post also put Obama's approval rating above the 50% threshold.
Most heartening to the White House was the improvement of Obama's numbers among self-identified independent voters. According to Gallup, 46% now approve of his performance, up from 41% during the lame-duck session and an all-time low of 38% in July.
Voters also perceive that Obama is pursuing a more centrist course. The NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 40% viewed Obama as a moderate, higher even than the number of people who felt that way during his post-inaugural honeymoon.
The White House denied that Obama was preoccupied with his political standing, and attributed any improvement to simply making "good decisions on behalf of the American people."
The same surveys show that although new House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) is getting favorable early reviews, Americans don't expect that much from the new Congress.
Americans are still pessimistic about the course of the nation, but less so than recent months. In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 35% said the nation was headed in the right direction, and 56% said it was on the wrong track. It's the best finding on that question since October 2009.
Thursday was the halfway point of the president's four-year term. He was elected in 2008 with the biggest majority in two decades. But one year later, his political fortunes began to decline, culminating in a GOP takeover of the House in the midterm election in November.
Yet, just weeks into the new Congress, Obama scores better than Republicans on the key issues of the economy, budget deficit, terrorism, taxes and helping the middle class. But respondents were divided over whether Democrats or Republicans would better handle healthcare, with 42% choosing each and 10% saying they trusted neither.
The NBC poll found a majority of respondents thought that Obama was likely to work well with Republicans in Congress. But just as many thought Republicans would be too inflexible in dealing with him.
The survey of 1,000 adults by phone was taken Jan. 13 to 17 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.