Obama Looks Good Halfway Through His Presidency

Polls show Obama is still the most admired man in America.

By + More
Video: Evaluating Obama Halfway Through

As President Obama passes the midway point of his current term, it's natural for the country to take stock of the man in the Oval Office. Despite setbacks in the midterm elections, it turns out that Obama is still held in relatively high regard. He is the most admired man in America, according to the Gallup Poll, and political pros and scholars say that at least part of the reason is because Americans like three qualities that seem to ominate Obama's approach to governing: pragmatism, persistence, and optimism. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

Political scientist Bill Galston, a former White House adviser to President Bill Clinton, says Obama is "a liberal pragmatist" rather than "a liberal theologian." In other words, Obama will push for a left-of-center agenda revolving around government activism, but he will compromise to get something done rather than insist on ideological purity that would end in futility. This pragmatic streak was clear in recent weeks when Obama made deals with congressional Republicans to get his agenda moving on Capitol Hill. "Political survival trumps ideology," says Republican strategist Frank Donatelli, a former White House adviser to Ronald Reagan.

As Obama returned to Washington from his Hawaiian vacation, he told reporters aboard Air Force One that he is eager to cooperate with Republicans in a practical way. "I think that there's going to be politics. That's what happens in Washington," the president said. "They are going to play to their base for a certain period of time. But I'm pretty confident that they're going to recognize that our job is to govern and make sure that we are delivering jobs for the American people and that we're creating a competitive economy for the 21st century."

Obama's pragmatic streak is also evident in his ongoing moves to ramp up his political operation for the 2012 campaign. He is reshuffling his team to get ready for the rugged battles ahead, such as moving senior adviser David Axelrod back to Chicago to set up the re-election organization along with outgoing White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina. Obama also authorized Robert Gibbs to resign as White House press secretary, freeing Gibbs from the day-to-day tedium of battling the press corps and giving him the role of long-range strategist and spokesman outside the West Wing. And he brought in former Commerce Secretary William Daley to be his new chief of staff and improve relations with the business community. [See a slide show of 10 keys to an Obama comeback.]

Obama's persistence is also one of his central attributes. At his year-end news conference on December 22, he said that his job performance in 2010 should have showed people that he doesn't give up easily and that when he sets an objective, he will keep at it long after his adversaries thought he would have quit trying. "I am persistent," Obama said. "If I believe in something strongly, I stay on it." He added that his deal-making during the lame-duck session of Congress in December proved his point, as he defied expectations to win passage of a big economic and unemployment package and Senate ratification of the New START arms-control treaty with Russia. "He showed a tough-mindedness about taking a course and following it through, even when it wasn't popular from the start in his own party," says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. "I think people eventually came around. He's somebody who's learned about what the powers of the presidency are, and has showed some adeptness at using them" in terms of setting an agenda and driving toward it. "On the tax-unemployment package, he did not wait for a congressional consensus to emerge but chose a course and pursued it," Garin says. [See a gallery of cartoons on the economy.]

What impresses many Republicans the most is his upbeat nature. "He has learned that Americans don't want to hear gloom and doom," says another former adviser to a GOP president. "He tries to balance realism with a sense that things will get better." Obama still expresses optimism across the board, even on seemingly intractable problems such as Mideast peace, improving relations with Iran and North Korea, and achieving comity in Washington despite bitter partisanship.