When it comes to gauging a president’s reelection chances amid a bad economy, two key metrics to keep an eye on are his approval rating, and voter perceptions of the direction the economy is moving in.

The new New York Times/CBS poll shows both are brightening.

Obama’s approval rating among registered voters has cracked 50 percent for the first time since his post-Bin Laden bounce last May. The last time Obama reached 50 percent before that? Nearly two years ago, in the spring of 2010.

The survey also finds that for the first time, the number who think the economy is getting better is higher than the number who think it’s getting worse by double digits, 34-22.

This mirrors a number of other recent findings: Last week’s numbers showing that jobless claims have fallen yet again. Gallup’s recent finding that its “economic confidence index” is at its highest since last May. A Post poll from last month showing a net 18-point swing in favor of the idea that the economy is improving.

There are still major caveats: The economy could dip again, due to external events or more misguided austerity policies from Congress. The right-track-wrong-track numbers are still terrible, at 35-59. Obama’s approval rating on the economy is still upside down, at 44-50. But even here, there’s been a net swing in Obama’s favor of eight points since January.

With unemployment expected to remain at at least eight percent through November, the Obama team has to hope that this trend continues, persuading swing voters to cast their vote based on the sense that things areat least moving in the right direction, rather than based on the state of the economy on Election Day.

* Widespread support for Obama’s birth control policy: This battle will heat up big time today, and the Times/CBS poll finds that 66 percent support a “federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients.”

Few commentators have been willing to go here. But as Dave Weigel notes, Elizabeth Warren’s criticism of Scott Brown for supporting the “extreme” and overreaching Blunt-Rubio amendment creates an opening for Democrats. The question is whether they’ll seize it; more on this later.

* Pro-Romney Super PAC unleashes flood of negative ads: And the tear-down is under way: Restore Our Future unleashes a very harsh attack ad in Michigan, Arizona, and Ohio tarring Rick Santorum as a big-spending Washington insider and ally of Hillary Clinton.

The ad is in keeping with the Romney camp’s plan, first reported by BuzzFeed, to point to Santorum’s Washington experience to sully his image as a pure socially conservative outsider and insurgent.

Also: This is another example of the absurdity and ineffectiveness of laws prohibiting Super PACs from coordinating with campaigns. The Romney campaign telegraphed its anti-Santorum strategy in the BuzzFeed piece; the Super PAC is adopting it in ads. This particular ad may not be related to that interview, but you can bet the Super PAC received the message in it.

* No end to the dissembling: As Christian Heinze points out, Romney is now claiming: “My campaign hasn’t run any negative ads against Rick Santorum.” But of course, as the above shows, his campaign basically telegraphed a negative strategy for the Super PAC to follow.

* Santorum-mentum in Ohio!!! Relatedly, a new Quinnipiac poll finds that Santorum has surged ahead of Romney in Ohio, 36-29.

Key nugget, from the polling analysis: “For the first time, numerically more voters in Ohio view Romney unfavorably than favorably. His pattern in the earlier primary states has been to use his money advantage to run a large number of negative ads on his biggest challenger. But doing so now risks further increasing Romney’s own unfavorables.” And Romney’s dilemma continues to deepen.

* Romney tanking among independents: Another important number in the Quinnipiac poll: Romney’s favorable numbers among Ohio independents are upside down, 34-41. This dovetails with the broader pattern we’ve seen, which is that the GOP nomination process is causing Romney to slide precipitously among independents as they get to know him better.

* Santorum hits Romney for negativity: Polling like the above helps explain why Santorum’s new ad in Michigan features a very plutocratic looking Romney firing mudballs at a cardboard cutout of a smiling Santorum, concluding: “In the end, Mitt Romney’s ugly attacks are going to backfire.”

The ad represents a bet that the more Romney tries to tear down the not-Romney of the moment, the more his negatives go up, because key GOP constituencies simply can’t come to terms with him as the nominee.

* Brokered convention growing more likely? The possibility of a Santorum win in Romney’s home state of Michigan, which could lead to Santorum dominating the midwest, makes the scenario at least plausible. Sean Trende walks through all the history to illustrate that it mostly turns on whether either Santorum or Newt Gingrich drop out and leave only one Romney antagonist behind, which could really happen.

* Payroll tax cut deal reached: It appears the deal came together last night when Democrats agreed to pay for the unemployment insurance extension by raising the amount federal workers contribute to their pensions.

As Steve Benen notes, Dems also surrendered on the millionaire surtax, though perhaps the biggest concession was made by Republicans when they agreed to extend the payroll tax cut for a year without paying for it.

* The GOP’s emerging Bob Dole problem:Steve Kornacki boils it down: “A flood of new data points to one clear conclusion: At least for now, President Obama and his Republican opponents are heading in opposite directions.”

* And GOP candidates are only talking to Republicans: A funny finding from the internals of the Times/CBS poll:

Do you think the Republican presidential candidates have been mostly talking about issues that matter to all Americans, or mostly talking about issues that mainly matter just to Republicans?

Matter to all Americans: 33

Matter mainly to Republicans: 58

No wonder 67 percent say a long, drawn-out GOP nomination process will hurt the eventual nominee.

What else?