President Obama leads congressional Republicans when it comes to dealing with the country’s debt limit according to a new poll. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Obama heads into his second term with political momentum on his side and leads congressional Republicans when it comes to dealing with the country’s debt limit, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

More Americans now approve of the way Obama is doing his job than at any point in the past three years, except for a fleeting spike upward after the killing of Osama bin Laden. The number seeing him as a “strong leader” is sharply higher, and a clear majority again sees him as empathetic with the problems they face.

Still, barely half see Obama as performing well on the economy, which is the overwhelming top priority across party lines. Registered voters split 48 to 49 percent on his handling of what they see as his clear No. 1 job.

And most continue to see the country as pretty seriously on the wrong track, a general, stubborn pessimism that colored much of Obama’s first term.

Most say they are hopeful about the policies Obama will pursue over the next four years, with the president buoyed by his relative standing against the GOP.

Most side with Obama in debt-ceiling debate

Fully 55 percent say Obama is doing a good job overall, more than double the 24 percent saying so of the Republicans in Congress. Among political independents, 54 percent approve of the president’s job performance; just 21 percent give good ratings to congressional Republicans. (At 37 percent overall and 30 percent among independents, the Democrats in Congress do little better.)

The GOP congressional leadership also takes flak for a perceived unwillingness to work with Obama on important issues: 67 percent of all Americans see them as doing “too little” to compromise with the president. Far fewer, 48 percent, say so about Obama’s willingness to compromise with the GOP.

The percentage of Americans seeing the Republican leadership as overly intransigent is up 13 percentage points since December 2010, just after the GOP reclaimed control of the House. The biggest increases since that time have been among Republicans and conservatives, with roughly 20-point jumps in blaming their party’s leaders for not doing enough to strike deals with the president. Half of all Republicans say the GOP leadership is not doing enough to compromise.

Republicans in the poll have also led the revival in Obama’s “strong leader” number. Overall, 61 percent see the president as a strong leader, up from 51 percent a year ago. Since then, there has been a 17-point increase among Republicans, from 18 to 35 percent.

Nearly half of Republicans also take the president’s side when it comes to one important aspect of the intense debate over the nation’s debt limit: that the issue of raising the borrowing limit should be separate from the identification of spending cuts.

Republican leaders in Congress have drawn a hard line that such cuts are essential to any legislative deal to raise the debt ceiling. But Republicans in the poll are divided on the issue: 48 percent say any increase in the debt limit should be tied to cuts, while nearly as many, 45 percent, say that the two issues should be isolated, discrete issues.

Overall, the public sides with Obama on this question: 58 percent say cuts should be a separate matter, and 36 percent say they should be knotted with the borrowing limit. Obama also has the trust edge here: 49 percent say they have more confidence in him to handle the issue, compared with 35 percent who put more faith in the GOP.

With a 55 percent approval rating, Obama approaches another four-year stint a shade more well-regarded than his predecessor, George W. Bush, who carried a 52 percent rating into his second term. At this stage 16 years ago, when Bill Clinton prepared to take the oath of office for a second time, 60 percent approved of the way he was doing the job.

Obama continues to face record levels of partisan opposition. He has the lowest approval rating from the other side — just 17 percent of Republicans approve of the way he is doing his job — than any president entering his second term in the past half century, according to Post-ABC and Gallup polls.

The new Post-ABC poll was conducted Jan. 10-13 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults. The margin of sampling error for the full sample is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Cohen is director of polling for Capital Insight, the independent polling group of Washington Post Media. Craighill is a pollster with Capital Insight, as is Scott Clement, who contributed to this report.