The latest New York Times/CBS News pollconfirms a recent trend since the end of last year: President Obama's political standing is improving.
Obama's job approval rating is now 50 percent, an "important baseline in presidential politics" according to the Times. The president's approval rating has not been around 50 percent since the end of 2009, which was just about a year into office.
The Times says the main reason for Obama's improved status is the better outlook for the economy. Unemployment has declined in recent months, and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is likely to be revised upwards to 3 percent on an annual basis. The poll found that 34 percent believe the economy is getting better, versus 22 percent who believe it is getting worse - a reversal from last fall, when pessimists reigned.
The stabilization of the economy is certainly a factor. But there is a soft underbelly to the economy and Obama's prospects. A majority of Americans (52 percent ) still disapprove of Obama's handling of job creation, and most (54 percent) say he has not made any real progress in fixing the economy. Also, if Obama is hinging his re-election strategy on better economic data, he is vulnerable given the lack of a truly strong recovery, as well as the potential for further damage from the situation in Europe and other world economy risks.
What the Times and others understate is the benefit Obama is receiving from the disarray among Republicans. You can see how Obama and his fellow Democrats have out-maneouvered the Republicans in congress on the issue of the extension of the payroll tax, which was agreed this week without Republican opposition. But you can especially see how Obama gains when he is compared with the Republicans vying to be the presidential nominee.
Mitt Romney, the supposed "most electable" presidential candidate, continues to suffer from a lack of enthusiasm. Straw polls find him trailing Obama in a hypothetical race, and he fares particularly poorly among the key segment of independent voters. Romney is doing so badly that he now trails Rick Santorum in the Republican nomination race by seven percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average of polls. He also trails Santorum in polls leading up to the Michigan primary, even though Michigan is supposed to be Romney's home state. (Santorum is the latest beneficiary of the "anybody but Romney" primary contest; he is no more impressive than any of the other ones who have auditioned for that role, but he does have the benefit of appearing to be the last one available.)
In American politics today, there is very little in the way of positive action or proposals that leads to solid support from the electorate. Instead, it is a game whereby whoever is the center of attention becomes the focus of criticism and dissatisfaction. Today, the discussion is all about the Republicans' problems, and so Obama benefits. That kind of indirect support - that is, Obama looks good only in comparison with the other guys - does not provide a solid basis. If the spotlight shifts to Obama and the Democrats, then do not be surprised if that support begins to erode.