President Barack Obama delivers the annual State of the Union Address next Tuesday to a joint session of Congress and is expected to lay out his administration’s priorities for the year ahead. Public-opinion polls show the president is enjoying a bit of a political rebound in recent weeks.
Several recent polls show a surge in President Obama’s public-approval rating. The latest survey by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal newspaper found 53 percent of those polled approve of how Obama is handling his job, a jump of eight points from last month.
Political analysts say the reason for the upswing in the president’s approval appears to be related in part to the president’s call for unity in response to the recent shooting spree in Arizona that killed six people and wounded several others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. They also say the successful late-year congressional session helped the president and lawmakers from both parties.
President Obama’s improving political standing comes at the midpoint of his four year term, which so far has been dominated by a divisive domestic debate over health-care reform.
Obama won passage of health-care reform last year, but Democrats paid a price in the November elections when Republicans regained a majority in the House of Representatives.
Peter Brown is with the Quinnipiac University Polling Center in Connecticut. He said, "Interestingly, voters said the best thing he has done is health care, and voters said the worst thing he has done is health care, which shows you how split the country is on health care."
Obama did strike a tone of unity when he spoke at a memorial service in Tucson, Arizona, for those killed and wounded during the recent shooting spree.
"It is important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds," said the president.
That hope was quickly put to the test in Congress where Republicans in the House voted to repeal the president’s health care law, including Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
"We are here because we heard the American people in the last election," said Ryan. "We are here because we believe it is really important to do in office what you said you would do."
Analysts believe full congressional repeal is unlikely because Democrats still hold a majority in the Senate and because President Obama has vowed to veto any repeal bill coming out of Congress.
In the wake of last November’s Republican election gains, Obama faces some daunting political challenges in getting his agenda through Congress.
Pollster Peter Brown said Americans remain split about the president as he begins his second two years in office. "Almost three-quarters of voters say they like him personally, but less than half like his policies."
Among those who do not like his policies are many independent voters, according to analyst and author Richard Wolffe.
"Those are people who backed Obama in 2008," said Wolffe. "They voted against Democrats in 2010. They have got to win them back, see the economy picking up some steam, and do all of that in two years."
Some analysts see the potential for limited cooperation over the next two years, especially given White House staff changes that include a new chief of staff, former Commerce Secretary Bill Daley.
John Fortier, a political scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said, "There will be disagreements between Republicans and Democrats. But in areas where they can find some common ground, Bill Daley is a person who might be able to pull those coalitions together."
Increasingly, much of the next two years will focus on the 2012 presidential election and how both parties are positioning themselves.
President Obama’s poll ratings have improved of late, but they were down through much of last year.
Brown said a president’s political fortunes can change quickly, and he points to the experience of then President Ronald Reagan prior to his re-election bid in 1984.
"Reagan had a 37-percent job approval rating at this point in 1983," said the pollster. "Twenty-two months later Ronald Reagan won the largest landslide in American presidential history. Times change and conditions change. In the case of Mr. Reagan, the economy got much better."
The political maneuvering for the 2012 presidential campaign is expected to heat up in the next few months when several potential Republican White House contenders announce whether or not they will seek the presidency.