- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2012

President Obama’s rising job-approval ratings are the result of a go-it-alone strategy against Congress and a bitter Republican presidential primary, political analysts say.

In two polls last week, Mr. Obama’s approval ratings reached the critical 50 percent mark sought by all incumbents. Gallup’s daily tracking poll has shown slow but steady gains since the president’s disapproval rating peaked at 54 percent in late August, just after contentious debt talks with GOP lawmakers and immediately before he launched his “We Can’t Wait” campaign urging congressional Republicans to approve multibillion-dollar jobs programs and payroll-tax cuts.

The president’s top advisers “came back from the August recess with a clear, sharp message focusing on the economy, and it’s been extraordinarily effective,” said Democratic strategist Matt Miller. “They capped that with the payroll-tax message. They’ve been relentless on this, and it’s worked.”

Republican pollster Whit Ayres said Mr. Obama’s gains are minimal in a composite of polls. Looking at an average of four polls taken since Feb. 10 — Rasmussen, Gallup, Democracy Corps and CNN — Mr. Ayres noted that the president’s job approval averaged 47.75 percent and his disapproval came in at 48.25 percent.

“That’s certainly no sign of a major, fundamental shift in his job approval,” Mr. Ayres said. “There’s no evidence of any particular improvement. It’s sort of like the daily variation of stock prices.”

The president’s most recent battle with Republican lawmakers culminated Friday when lawmakers approved an extension of the 2-percentage-point payroll-tax cut and unemployment-compensation benefits without paying for them. Many in the GOP had been holding out for offsetting budget cuts.

Strategists say Mr. Obama also has benefited from an improving employment picture, with the jobless rate falling from 9.1 percent in August to 8.3 percent in January. Some think the president also has been the accidental beneficiary of a nasty battle for the Republican presidential nomination, in which former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have spent millions of dollars in December and January going negative on each other.

“The Republicans are imploding, and independents and swing voters are getting turned off,” said Lanae Erickson, an official in the social policy and political program at Third Way, a Democratic think tank in Washington. “Six weeks ago, Romney was ahead of the president by 10 points with independents, and now the president is up by 10 points. That’s a huge swing.”

Democratic strategist David Di Martino of Blue Engine Message & Media said too many voters are finding the Republican field “wholly unattractive.”

“As the GOP primary has dragged on, more voters are exposed to the candidates and what they stand for — and the president benefits from that comparison,” Mr. DiMartino said. “Essentially, if it’s a contest between his vision and their regressive policies, the president wins.”

In a move viewed as targeting women and independent voters, the administration on Jan. 20 announced that it would require religious-affiliated employers to provide health insurance coverage that includes free contraceptives. The administration later retreated somewhat, but Mr. Ayres and others said it’s too soon to judge the impact on voters.

“It depends which side ends up winning the [public relations] battle,” Mr. Ayres said. “Republican are likely to say that Obamacare leads to big, overweening government that demands a private company give away its product for free because the government tells you to. The Democrats are going to try to turn this into, ‘Are you for or against contraception?’ “

Mr. Ayres said the latest poll numbers still forecast a close battle in the general election for Mr. Obama, no matter which candidate ends up winning the GOP nomination.

“If he’s in a 47-to-53 percent job approval, then he’s in that iffy range where he could win and he could lose,” Mr. Ayres said. “The country is so divided right now on him. He’s the most polarizing president in our history. It’s going to be very difficult for him to move the numbers. He could not win a referendum on his economic record today.”