By Julianna Goldman
President Barack Obama is rebounding from record-low approval ratings as he remedies the botched rollout of his health-care website and moves past the budget standoffs of the last several years.
Less than eight months before the November midterm elections, Americans are evenly split, with 48 percent approving of Obama's job performance, up from 42 percent in December -- the biggest positive change of his presidency, according to a Bloomberg National Poll. He's also registering an improved favorability rating at 49 percent, the highest since last June.
Even so, majorities still disapprove of Obama's performance across a broad spectrum of issues. They include the economy, a top issue for voters this year, which may threaten his party's chances for retaining control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats in November's elections to retake control of the chamber.
"The six-point increase in Obama's approval rating puts him back in the territory he typically occupies," said Ann Selzer, founder of Des Moines, Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted the March 7-10 poll of 1,001 U.S. adults that has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points. "He had a post-election bump in December of 2012 and February 2013 and then a steady decline."
The survey is an early test of how Americans are responding to the central themes Obama unveiled in his State of the Union address, including expanding economic opportunity, upward mobility and raising wages. Those issues also will be central themes for Democrats in this year's elections.
Sixty-nine percent of Americans, including 45 percent of Republicans, support the president's call to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 over the next three years. Twenty-eight percent of poll respondents oppose such action.
While the wage-increase proposal resonates with most Americans, the poll indicates that Republicans are finding persuasive counter-arguments.
Asked about a Congressional Budget Office finding that raising the minimum wage would lift the incomes of 16.5 million people while eliminating 500,000 jobs, a majority -- 57 percent -- said that tradeoff is unacceptable.
That sentiment was also evident among people who say they want to see the minimum wage increased. When asked whether the jobs-versus-wages is an acceptable tradeoff, those respondents split evenly, with 45 percent of them saying it wasn't.
Jobs vs. Wages
"I had mixed feelings about that," said Alba Basden, a 72-year-old retiree in Mesa, Arizona, who twice voted for Obama. "Raising the minimum wage to $10 would mean the price of goods and services will go up, more businesses will cut jobs to make up for that loss. People need jobs right now."
On foreign policy, 41 percent of Americans disapprove of the president's handling of the conflict in Ukraine compared with 34 percent who approve. Still, the public isn't embracing Republican charges that Obama's weakness as a world leader contributed to the tension.
Sixty-two percent of Americans and a plurality of Republicans -- 49 percent -- say the movement of Russian troops into Crimea was a result of President Vladimir Putin's aggressive quest for domination over countries formerly part of the Soviet Union. Just 20 percent of Americans and 36 percent of Republicans say the perception of Obama as weak is what emboldened Putin to take action.
Obama will meet at the White House later today with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people and discuss possibilities for a peaceful resolution.
On domestic issues, most Americans also side with the president on his call to reinstate expanded unemployment benefits, although by smaller margins than those behind his proposal to increase the minimum wage.
When it comes to the broader theme of reducing the nation's wealth disparity, 45 percent of respondents think it's better for the government to implement policies designed to shrink the gap compared with 43 percent who said it's best to let the market operate freely even if it gets wider.
Median household income adjusted for inflation has declined every year that Obama has been in office, from $53,644 in 2008 to $51,017 in 2012, the lowest level since 1994, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The richest 10 percent of Americans earned a larger share of income in 2012 than at any time since 1917, according to research by Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. Those in the top one-tenth of income distribution earned at least $146,000 in 2012, almost 12 times what those in the bottom tenth made, census data show.
"I know there used to be a middle class," said Selma Rudolph, 76, a Democrat who lives in Boynton Beach, Fla. "My own son lost his business and he's working two jobs. It's just tough times for people."
The debate over closing the income gap resonates with demographic groups that could be important to Democrats in the midterms. Majorities or pluralities of nonwhite respondents, women, and young people back the notion that government should intervene to shrink the gap. Letting the market determine income levels is supported by white respondents and seniors age 65 and older.
The Democratic proposal to lift the minimum wage is stalled in Congress, and states are moving ahead with their own increases. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia had a higher minimum wage than the federal level as of January.
Obama and his partisan allies are already highlighting on the campaign trail the refusal by House Republican leaders to allow a vote on the issue.
Yet it's unclear whether that argument will be persuasive based on the poll results. The country is split as to whether the issue will affect their decisions about which candidates to vote for in November. While almost half of Americans say it will play a part, just 26 percent say it's a major element, 23 percent a minor factor and 46 percent say it's not a factor at all.
The increase in Obama's job-approval rating is being helped by independents, with 42 percent supporting him, up from 35 percent in December. He also is getting a boost from young adults, whose approval of his performance increased 11 percentage points, and women, whose positive rating jumped by 8 percentage points.
Obama's handling of the economy improved by 5 percentage points, while remaining downbeat in general as 53 percent disapprove of his performance compared with 43 percent who approve.
The CBO predicts the federal budget deficit will decline in 2014 to $514 billion from $1.1 trillion in 2012. Yet 57 percent of Americans aren't happy with the president's handling of the deficit compared with 34 percent who approve of it. On the bright side, Obama's disapproval rating on that issue is 6 percentage points lower than it was in December.
A slight majority, 51 percent, are also down on Obama's negotiations with the House Republican majority compared with 37 percent who approve of his performance. Still, that was less than in December, when the president scored a 55 percent disapproval rating on the issue.
"People keep trying to say 'Obama this, Obama that' -- he's not the one responsible for it," said Basden, the Arizona retiree. "It's Congress -- Republicans and Democrats -- who can't agree on anything."
To contact the reporter on this story: Julianna Goldman in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org To contact the editors responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at email@example.com Jeanne Cummings, Mark McQuillan