Obama moving along

A just-released Associated Press-GfK poll brings good news for a White House that many feared was beginning to flounder. After appearing nearly invincible in the first hundred days or so, the administration appeared to take some big hits over the late summer and early fall. The inability of the president and his wrangler in chief Rahm Emanuel to force a healthcare reform bill to the floor of either house before the August recess gave some pause. Then the well-organized counterattack of the Republican Right and the business community in August had many thinking the Chicago gang was in retreat. Now it appears that the president is on the rebound.

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The chief driver of this good news is, as always, a more optimistic view of the world from voters. Overall, 41 percent now think the nation is headed in the right direction — still a worrisome number, but four points better than it was in September. Fifty percent of voters approve of POTUS’s handling of the economy — up six points from numbers in the same poll a month ago. He got a similar bump in support for his handling of healthcare reform.

As I wrote here several weeks ago, the president desperately needed to win something to rebuild his political capital and take advantage of the fact that most voters like him, even if they worry about his policies. It seems folks think he has turned the tide, and the biggest driver of that perception is a belief that the economy is getting better and the future looking brighter. That voters have listened to both sides of the healthcare reform debate and decided Obama is getting it right certainly helps.

But that doesn’t mean he’s out of the woods yet. A huge majority of Americans still consider the economy their biggest concern (88 percent in this poll) and they are fretting about unemployment. As jobless numbers continue to rise, the president is going to have to show leadership on putting people back to work. In states where I’m seeing research, unemployment continues to be the biggest worry.

Even though there is uncertainty over whether the huge stimulus package fashioned by the administration is working, it may be time for the president to think seriously about programs that put people back to work. I don’t think calling such an effort a “jobs stimulus” makes a lot of sense right now, but some plan more specific than the vague promise of “creating a green economy” would send a welcome message to voters: This president’s job is to create jobs for Americans.

It is dangerous to generalize from one published poll, especially when you don’t have access to all the numbers, but it appears that people are not worried about the president taking on too much. Maybe, after eight years of an administration that ignored all but a few issues, people like having a president willing to deal with a full plate. But the clear message I’m seeing in polls like this one is that the most important serving on that plate is jobs and the economy.

As I’ve written here recently, I think the president should get what he can in healthcare reform and declare that one done. He should be cautious about escalation in Afghanistan, as voters are clearly losing interest in that war and would prefer it just go away. While a new energy policy is essential and financial reform is both popular and necessary, those should be saved for the next course. Right now it is faith in the economy and new jobs that will have the most impact on the president’s political fortunes. If he gets that bit right, he’ll have plenty of time to build a lasting legacy.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com