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As Nation's Mood Lifts, Can Obama Capitalize?

By Dan Balz
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The most striking finding from the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll released today is the change in the public mood. Since Barack Obama was elected president in November, the pervasive gloom of 2008 has given way to a sense of hopefulness and considerably more optimism about the state of the country.

How much of this change is directly attributable to Obama's leadership rather than the nascent signs of improvement will become fodder for the cable shows as the president's 100th day arrives this week. What's important is that he now enjoys the power of public confidence. He will need all the backing he can muster as he moves into what is likely to be an even more difficult phase of his presidency.

Half the country now thinks things are moving in the right direction. That compares with 8 percent in October, during the election's final weeks. The shift in public sentiment sets Obama apart from many of his predecessors. It took Bill Clinton five years and a successful reelection campaign before Post-ABC News polls recorded a majority believing the country was on the right track. Other recent presidents have seen the mood turn sour before it improved.

No one should mistake the current mood for euphoria, given the state of the economy. But the poll shows an across-the-board boost in spirits. Among Democrats, 71 percent say the country is going in the right direction -- the first time since 1999 that figure has hit the 70 percent mark. Among independents, 44 percent are positive -- the highest since the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003. Republicans are far more pessimistic, with 27 percent saying the country is going in the right direction -- but that's still double what it was in February.

Obama has set a fast pace in his first months and has been rewarded with high approval ratings. A sizable percentage of Americans approve of the job he is doing, and they have a highly favorable impression of him personally. More than half say he is doing a better job than they expected. That compares favorably with early reviews for Clinton and George W. Bush. Barely four in 10 said Clinton and Bush were doing better than expected.

Obama is the dominant figure in Washington by a wide margin. Perceptions of the Republican Party are low and have gone down in the past month. Almost two-thirds of the public now disapprove of the performance of congressional Republicans, and the lack of credible opposition also gives Obama more running room. All this suggests that Obama's biggest worry is not Republican resistance but his own performance: Can he sustain the pace and the successes of his first months -- and what happens when he stumbles?

The surge in public optimism not withstanding, the poll exposes areas of concern about the economy, national security policy and the president's performance. Worries about the deficit remain strong, with only a bare majority approving of how Obama is dealing with that potentially huge issue. His call to his Cabinet last week to cut the budget by $100 million doesn't represent even a down payment on a deficit strategy.

Obama's handing of federal assistance to General Motors and Chrysler now get negative reviews, a reminder that bailouts are unpopular. The president has been freely exercising the powers of his office and the federal government in dealing with the economy, but it's clear he has not yet won over the public on how much government they want in that area.

More than six in 10 say Obama has accomplished either a great deal or a good amount so far. Yet only a third say the big stimulus package approved two months ago has helped the economy. Overall, a strong majority say that the stimulus program will help, but the early verdict is tentative.

The controversy over the Bush administration's policies regarding harsh interrogation techniques, as well as Obama's decision to end them and release Bush-era Justice Department memos outlining the legal justification for the policies, highlights a deep split within the country. Obama's hopes of heading off a full-scale debate over the past may have been misplaced; his change in policy has not produced a new consensus on the difficult choices the threat of terrorism has raised.

The uproar this past week is a reminder that the bad loans on the books of financial institutions are not the only toxic assets Obama inherited that remain to be cleaned up. Beyond questions of how terrorism suspects are treated, the president has wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to deal with.

Interestingly, his highest approval ratings come on those two conflicts. Seventy-one percent approve of his handling of Iraq; 63 percent say they approve of what he has done with regard to Afghanistan. Overall, 67 percent approve of his handling of international affairs -- and that comes after he was criticized by conservatives for appearing to be too cordial with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Those high numbers reflect in part the lack of confidence Americans had in Bush at the end of his presidency. Any change was welcome. But after a week of suicide bombings in Iraq, deepening problems in Pakistan and instability in Afghanistan, Obama still confronts treacherous hurdles in making his policies work.

White House officials who follow the numbers have been cheered by the lift in the country's mood. They know better than to read more into it than is warranted, but they are determined to try to leverage public sentiment as they marshal support for the rest of the president's package.

Much of the country has invested its hopes in Obama, and he has made a powerful first impression. The glimmers of optimism that go along with the glimmers of improvement in the economy have accrued to his benefit.

But ahead lie major battles over health care and energy. How durable and sustainable his support, and how he uses it, will be the story of the next 100 days -- and the next 100 -- of his presidency.

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