“According to the latest Gallup tracking poll, more Americans approve of the job that President Obama is doing than disapprove for the first time since this summer.

“The latest Gallup survey shows that 47 percent of Americans now say they approve of the way that President Obama is handling his job. This is a 5 percent improvement since the Dec. 16-18 Gallup survey and marks the first time the president’s numbers have been in positive territory since July. The number of Americans who say they disapprove of Obama’s job performance has fallen to 45 percent, down 5 points from Dec. 16-18.”

“And now, a new survey suggests that the view of Mr. Obama in the eyes of the general public has begun to improve just as he prepares to make the case for another term in the White House. A Washington Post-ABC poll on Monday put his approval rating at 49 percent, his best since the spring.

“And the poll suggests that the public’s estimation of him has increased as its approval of Republicans in Congress has plummeted. Just 20 percent approved of Congressional Republicans. The poll also found that Mr. Obama holds a 15-point edge over Republicans in Congress on the question of who does a better job of protecting the middle class…

“Mr. Obama’s political advisers said his improvement in the polls may be the result of a slowly improving economy, the Republican infighting and a better communication strategy. One adviser added: ‘The end of the Iraq war also was a noteworthy event.'”

“He is in a danger zone. Presidential candidates usually capture a percentage of the vote that is about the same as their approval rating. In 2004, George W. Bush’s share of the vote was about equal to his job approval number right before the election; Mr. Clinton, in 1996, and George H.W. Bush in 1992, were about within that margin of error. That suggests Mr. Obama would be in trouble in a two-person race.

“Yet there is another indicator that gets less notice: the status of the challenging party. The last four times an insurgent party has captured the presidency — 1980, 1992, 2000 and 2008 — it had a positive approval rating a year before Election Day that usually was better than the incumbent party’s…

“Today, a plethora of polls show that both parties are held in low regard by the electorate, but the Republicans consistently do worse. They have been on a steady decline throughout this year. The explanation Republican politicians give for this slide is instructive. National politicos say congressional Republicans are to blame; on Capitol Hill, there is a lot of finger-pointing at the presidential candidates…

“This time around, former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the most likely 2012 Republican nominee, has strengths. But he is not a gifted politician like Mr. Reagan or Mr. Clinton, and his party certainly has not established a positive predicate for him to run on.”

“The improvement in Mr. Obama’s numbers, while fairly modest, is potentially meaningful. A relatively simple analysis of historical data that I conducted earlier this year found that an approval rating of 46 or 47 percent has represented the rough break-even point at which presidents are equally likely to win or lose a second term. Re-election becomes unlikely but not impossible if the president is below this mark — the quality of his opponent and the presence of third-party candidates can alter the outcome — and probable but not certain if it is closer to 50 percent. (Note, however, that Mr. Obama’s disapproval ratings still exceed his approval ratings in most polls, which may be the better benchmark.)…

“Perhaps more important from the White House’s perspective, there are clear signs that Americans are becoming less pessimistic about the economy’s performance. Gallup’s daily tracking of economic confidence has shown it rebounding to the point it was at before the debt ceiling debates of July and August, which had scared Main Street and Wall Street alike. The two major monthly consumer confidence surveys, from the Conference Board and the University of Michigan, have also shown improvement…

“By contrast, I find it unlikely that Mr. Obama’s approval ratings are improving because he is being compared favorably to Congress. Voters can judge each branch of government on its own terms. After the debt ceiling debate, they were perfectly happy to cast a pox upon all houses, with both Mr. Obama’s and Congress’s approval ratings sliding.”

“Obama is defending a tradition that sees government as an essential actor in the nation’s economy, a guarantor of fair rules of competition, a countervailing force against excessive private power, a check on the inequalities that capitalism can produce, and an instrument that can open opportunity for those born without great advantages…

“Romney’s sleight of hand is revealing: Republicans are increasingly inclined to argue that any redistribution (and Social Security, Medicare, student loans, veterans benefits and food stamps are all redistributive) is but a step down the road to some radically egalitarian dystopia.

Obama will thus be the conservative in 2012, in the truest sense of that word. He is the candidate defending the modestly redistributive and regulatory government the country has relied on since the New Deal, and that neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush dismantled. The rhetoric of the 2012 Republicans suggests they want to go far beyond where Reagan or Bush ever went. And here’s the irony: By raising the stakes of 2012 so high, Republicans will be playing into Obama’s hands. The GOP might well win a referendum on the state of the economy. But if this is instead a larger-scale referendum on whether government should be “inconsequential,” Republicans will find the consequences to be very disappointing.”

“For a Jindal scenario to work, Perry would have to collapse and Jindal turn around and immediately express interest in rising from his friend’s ashes. This officeholder also says that the deadline for ballot access in a lot of states is about two weeks after Iowa, meaning that a drafted candidate would probably have to use some other candidate’s ballot line as a proxy or go with a write-in. All of this sounds quite far-fetched. The other alternative for a new candidate is a convention where no one has a majority of delegates. That also is far-fetched, but not impossible as Brian demonstrated in his ‘Getting to Brokered’ piece. It’s hard to argue, though, with the bottom line of this conservative: In an election with enormous consequences for the future of our country, ‘we don’t have our A team on the field.'”

“If Barack Obama wins re-election, it means the liberal base really is growing, a lot. Despite the insane fears that the GOP will nominate someone average Americans think is a freak, the eventual nominee is fairly certain to be palatable enough that reasonable people actually dissatisfied with Obama will vote for him.

“The trouble for Republicans is that so few people dissatisfied with Obama want to vote against him — and that so few ostensibly reasonable voters are willing to express any dissatisfaction at all. That might change as the race for president heats up. But there likely won’t be a sea change. And if there’s no change at all, or a change in the wrong direction, Republicans will have to change their tune, and perhaps even some of their official assumptions, about the American people.”

“‘Unless Democrats win a big victory in Congress, it’s hard to see how a second term would be any better,’ says Jack Pitney, an American-government professor at Claremont McKenna College. ‘Second terms never are.’ Pitney was a congressional staffer on the Republican side in 1985, and finds the aftermath of President Reagan’s reelection instructive. ‘Even though Reagan had won a huge mandate (carrying 49 states), it didn’t translate into much legislative success, with the important exception of tax reform.’ Reagan faced a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, a mirror image of the party divisions that frustrate Obama today.

“Obama is more likely to win in a squeaker than with a Reagan-sized mandate. ‘You might say if the election of 2008 didn’t persuade Republicans to go along with the majority, why would a narrow Obama victory in 2012 have a better effect?’ asks William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. If the president couldn’t quell fractious lawmakers when he had a 70 percent approval rating and a big electoral mandate, why would he be any more effective in dealing with Congress after a hard-fought reelection campaign in which the GOP has a better than even chance to capture control of the Senate, and keep its hold on the House?…

“Looking into his crystal ball, Nivola says Obama would not want to go down in history as the president who continued to run up the debt, so a second-term priority would be the grand bargain that eluded him earlier this year. Securing the implementation of health-care reform and reining in Medicare spending would be another priority. Immigration reform would be high up there as well, especially if Hispanics turn out for him. ‘He would feel some obligation to deliver for them,’ says Nivola.”