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Posted at 11:36 AM ET, 01/19/2011

President Obama's rising popularity, examined

By Aaron Blake

Three new polls show President Obama's approval rating taking a turn for the better.

The most recent Washington Post-ABC News, CNN, and Gallup polls show Obama's approval rising to 54 percent, 53 percent and 53 percent, respectively -- his highest marks since 2009 in each survey.

But a closer look at the numbers shows that voters don't necessarily see much change around them and don't necessarily believe Obama has the right answers on the issues of the day.

What they do believe is that things will get better -- and that optimism is fueling Obama's resurgence at the moment.

Take a new Quinnipiac poll released this week. It showed 54 percent of people think the economy is beginning to recover, versus 43 percent who think it isn't.

In that same poll, though, just 36 percent of voters said they thought the economy was getting better.

What explains the difference between the 54 percent who say the economy is "beginning to recover" and the 36 percent who think the economy is "getting better?" Hope. And optimism.

Here's another way to look at it: Just 38 percent of people in the Q poll think Obama has helped the economy, but 46 percent think Obama will help the economy. And just 19 percent think Obama has helped their personal financial situation, but 29 percent think he will help them.

By and large, the American people haven't seen the country's economic situation improve. The Quinnipiac numbers show 14 percent rate the economy as good or excellent, while 86 percent rate it "not so good" or poor. Those numbers are barely better than they have been for the last year.

Yet the number of people who say the economy is getting better is higher than it's been in two years. People are starting to hope a little bit, and that bodes well for Obama.

It could be the recent improvement in the unemployment numbers and it could be Obama's well-received speech after the shootings in Tucson. Heck, it could also be the new Republican majority in the House, which takes some pressure off a Democratic Party that had been controlling all levers of government. Whatever the cause(s), people's views of their president are almost inextricably linked to the economy, and optimism about the economy means renewed optimism in the country's chief executive.

People seem to be willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. He remains personally popular, and if the economy does show significant signs of improvement, voters seem more than willing to give him credit for it.

The CNN poll showed 60 percent think Obama is honest and trustworthy, 57 percent think he's a strong and decisive leader, 57 percent think he "cares about people like you" and 59 percent say he is tough enough to handle a crisis.

(When you start talking about issues and values, though, that's when things get a little shaky. Just 47 percent say Obama agrees with them on the issues and 50 percent say he shares their values.)

All of these numbers suggest that the American public, which has spent the last two years in the economic doldrums, appears to be seeing some "green shoots" of optimism of late.

If -- and it's a big "if" -- that positive perception takes root amid signs of an economic recovery, Obama's personal favorability ratings suggest he is likely to reap the electoral rewards.

To be clear, Obama is not as popular as he was during the 2008 campaign, having absorbed the blow of the struggling economy over his first two years in office. But, signs of hope in the electorate when it comes to the economy have to be encouraging for a president who hasn't received much good news on that front in recent years.

By Aaron Blake  | January 19, 2011; 11:36 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2012  
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