Rising Economic Tide Lifts Obama's Fortunes—With Some Caveats

Improving poll and economic numbers show a sunny path for Obama, but there are pitfalls.

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For Obama, the good news just keeps on coming.

This morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that employers added 227,000 jobs in February indicating that the economy—while still anemic—was improving, with the third straight month of job gains over 200,000. And while his poll numbers still fail to break the 50 percent benchmark, a Gallup tracking poll released Friday showed that 48 percent of Americans approved of the job Obama was doing in the White House, while 44 percent disapproved. While still far from his best, the numbers are the highest for Obama since last summer.

[See political cartoons about President Obama.]

As Republicans continue to get swept up into wars over gas prices and cultural issues such as contraception, Democrats are confidently predicting that the rising economy will lead to an Obama victory in November. But while the economy will certainly be front and center for the November election, some Republicans are predicting that an improving economy, ironically, will re-focus the attention of voters on Obama policies which remain unpopular.

"I think there are some pretty big issues that have been eclipsed by the economy, that get to the size and scope of the government," says Terry Nelson, a Republican campaign operative who managed the campaign of Tim Pawlenty. "I think that those kind of issues will come back to the fore, in the debate over his re-election. They were winning issues two years ago."

A recent Associated Press poll found that the President's healthcare reform package remains strongly unpopular, despite Democratic hopes that, over time, voters would warm to the legislation. The stimulus legislation and auto bailout, two of Obama's signature accomplishments, also have polarized voters.

Improvement in the economy is typically seen as a welcome sign for an incumbent, even if the overall situation remains bad. If voters are confident that things are moving in the right direction, they may be more comfortable sticking with the incumbent. But Obama will have to make the case that the economy is improving due to policies which he implemented—and the case has yet to be made, some argue.

"If people believe that the stimulus is a failure, if they believe that healthcare reform is bad for the economy, and they believe that he is over-regulating, then anything that is happening to the economy doesn't track back to him," one Republican strategist says, pointing to the failed re-election campaign of President George H.W. Bush, despite an economy that was slightly improving.

"It's not necessarily an immediate reward and effect," says Jessica Taylor, senior analyst with the Rothenberg Political Report.

And Republicans still view the weak economy as a weakness for the president—despite any improvements.

"It's still, by historic measures, a bad economy," Nelson says. "Unemployment is still higher than it is for any other president who's been re-elected in modern times."

aparker@usnews.com

Twitter: @AlexParkerDC