WASHINGTON - What a difference a few weeks can make.
Last month, Republicans were celebrating their midterm victories; Democrats were licking their electoral wounds; and President Barack Obama’s approval rating was stuck in the mid-40s.
But after a five-week stretch that included bipartisan legislative achievements in the lame-duck session of Congress, mostly positive economic news and Obama’s well-received speech honoring the victims of the tragic shootings in Arizona, the political world has taken an abrupt turn in direction.
According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Obama’s approval rating has surged above 50 percent; confidence in the economy also has spiked; and the Democratic Party — but not the GOP — now enjoys a net-positive rating from the American public.
“The last six weeks have been the best six weeks the president has had in his first two years in office," says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
But Hart cautions that challenges remain for Obama and the Democrats, with a majority still believing the country is on the wrong track and half disapproving of the president’s economic handling.
And both pollsters say these numbers present this question for the president, especially with the 2012 election on the horizon: Is this a transition, or is a transitory moment?
In the poll, Obama’s job-approval rating stands at 53 percent, which is an eight-point jump from last month and represents his highest rating in the survey since July 2009.
The improvement for Obama was across the board: Approval among independents moved from 35 percent in December to 46 percent now; among Democrats, it went from 76 percent to 86 percent; and among Republicans, it went from 11 percent to 15 percent.
“I think that this increase in his job approval is very important,” says McInturff, the GOP pollster. “At the same time, these kind of rises have been transitory,” he adds, referring to former President Clinton’s immediate — but later fleeting — bump in approval after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The poll also finds that 40 percent of respondents label Obama as a political moderate, compared with 45 percent who see him as a liberal and 11 percent who view him as a conservative. That moderate number is the highest for Obama in the NBC/WSJ poll, even higher than it was before his inauguration.
The survey — which was taken from Jan. 13-17 of 1,000 adults (200 by cell phone), and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — comes after a series of triumphs and positive developments for the Obama White House:
— on Dec. 17, the president signed into law bipartisan legislation extending the Bush-era tax cuts for all income levels, and also extending unemployment benefits and cutting payroll taxes;
— on Dec. 22, he signed into law the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” ban on gays serving openly in the military;
— also on Dec. 22, the Senate ratified a nuclear arms-reduction treaty with Russia;
— on Jan. 7, the Labor Department released data showing that the unemployment rate declined from 9.8 percent in November to 9.4 percent in December (although it also showed the economy adding a lower-than-expected 103,000 jobs last month);
— on Jan. 12, the president delivered a well-received speech honoring the victims from the shootings in Arizona. (The poll finds that 74 percent approve of his handling of the tragedy.)
McInturff says it’s unclear how much Obama’s increase can be attributed to each of these events since the last poll, which was conducted Dec. 9-13. “It’s beyond my pay grade to sort out how much is lame duck, how much is Arizona,” he said.
How long will it last?
What is clear, though, is that Obama will ride into his State of the Union address next week in a stronger position than many would have thought after November, when the Republican Party won control of the U.S. House and picked up seats in the U.S. Senate.
“This is a person who will walk in the hall with a great deal of confidence and with the wind at his back,” says Hart.
But how long will it last? The poll shows plenty of tests for Obama and his administration. For instance, 45 percent approve of his economic handling (up three points), but 50 percent disapprove.
What’s more, 56 percent think the country is on the wrong track, although that’s a seven-point drop from last month.
And a combined 82 percent say the war in Afghanistan has either gotten worse or stayed the same, with another 71 percent believing the U.S. will ultimately have to withdraw and leave the country without a stable democratic government.
The GOP’s short honeymoon
Republicans have now been in control of the House for less than two weeks, but the survey suggests an abbreviated honeymoon for the GOP.
Just 25 percent say that the Republicans in Congress will bring “the right kind of change” to the country. That’s compared with 42 percent who said that after Democrats took over the House in 2007, and 37 percent who said that after Republicans gained control in 1995.
In addition, a majority (55 percent) believe congressional Republicans will be too inflexible in dealing with President Obama, while an equal number (55 percent) say Obama will strike the right balance.
On House Republicans’ goal to repeal Obama’s health care law — an effort that cleared the chamber on Wednesday — 45 percent support eliminating the law and 46 percent oppose the GOP effort.
And attitudes about the Republican Party have declined, with 34 percent viewing the GOP positively and 40 percent negatively — down from its 38-37 percent favorable/unfavorable rating last month.
By comparison, the Democratic Party’s fav/unfav in the current poll is 39-35 percent, up from its 37-41 percents score from last month.
“I think this has been a pretty short Republican honeymoon,” McInturff says.
Adds Hart: “I think the president has the benefit of the doubt, and the Republicans — based on this data — have the burden of proof.”
In the emerging — and very early — race for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee lead the hypothetical pack, with Romney the first choice of 19 percent of Republicans and independents, and Huckabee at 18 percent.
They are followed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (at 14 percent), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (at 10 percent), Texas Congressman Ron Paul (at 8 percent) and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (at 5 percent).
In hypothetical general-election contests, the poll shows Obama leading Huckabee by 10 points, 51 to 41 percent, and Gingrich by 19 points, 54 to 35 percent. The December NBC/WSJ poll had the president leading Romney by seven points and Palin by 22 points.
On the economy, Arizona and Palin
In other poll findings:
— 40 percent believe the U.S. economy will improve in the next 12 months, up eight points from December;
— 53 percent think the United States will be better off five years from now, which is up 16 points from last August;
— only 24 percent say that extreme political rhetoric contributed to the shootings in Arizona, while 71 percent say it was an isolated incident caused by a disturbed person;
— and Palin’s favorable/unfavorable rating stands at 27-49 percent, with her favorable score tying its lowest-ever point in the survey.