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Poll: Obama's job approval higher on positive economic news

The president’s overall job-approval number now stands at 46%, and 49% approve of Obama’s handling of the economy –- the most since his first year in office.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event in Bridgeport, Conn., Nov. 2, 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event in Bridgeport, Conn., Nov. 2, 2014.

More Americans are satisfied with the economy than at any point in the past 10 years, helping to increase President Barack Obama’s key job ratings, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released before his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night.

The president’s overall job-approval number now stands at 46%, which is his highest rating since Oct. 2013 during the government shutdown. (His approval rating was stuck around 40% for much of last year.)

What’s more, 49% of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the economy – the most since his first year in office.

Still, nearly six-in-10 respondents believe the nation is headed in the wrong direction, and a plurality think the country is in a state of decline.

But both of those numbers are smaller than in years past – all signaling a growing sense of optimism that has helped boost Obama’s standing two months after his party’s stinging defeats in the 2014 midterm elections.

“Throughout most of 2014, Barack Obama had a stiff wind in his face,” says Democratic pollster Peter Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff and his firm. “He starts 2015 with a slight breeze at his back.”

Busting out of the Great Recession

In the poll, 45% of Americans say they’re satisfied with the state of the U.S. economy, while 54% are dissatisfied.

Yet that 45% satisfied is the highest number in the NBC/WSJ poll since Jan. 2004.

In addition, 50% say there were real and important indications in the past year that the economy either improved “a lot” or “somewhat.”

Another 28% of respondents say their own financial situation is getting better, 25% say it is getting worse and 47% say it is staying the same.

And only 49% believe the U.S. is in a state of decline – the lowest percentage on this question that dates back to 1991.

“For the first time, we have numbers that kind of bust out of the Great Recession Era,” says McInturff, the GOP pollster.

If this trend continues, McInturff adds, Obama’s standing could improve even more, potentially reordering the American political landscape as the 2016 presidential election begins.

But right now, Obama isn’t getting much credit for the improvement.

Just 23% say his policies have had a positive effect on the improving economic conditions, while 26 percent say they’ve had a negative effect. A majority of Americans – 51% – say it’s been a combination of the two.

An improving state of the union -- “in spite of our political leaders”

Yet while the country might be more bullish on the state of the economy, the same can’t be said about its opinions of Washington and Congress.

Only 16% of Americans approve of Congress’ job, while just 23% give congressional Republicans a thumbs-up.

Maybe more importantly, only 35% believe divided government – with Democrats controlling the White House and Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress – works well for the country.

That’s a reverse from previous NBC/WSJ polls (in 1996, 1997 and 1999), which found majorities in praise of divided government.

“It is almost as if the American public is saying, ‘The state of our union is improving’ – in spite of our political leaders in Washington,” says Democratic pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research.

Forty-five percent say that Obama has been too stubborn in his dealings with congressional Republicans, which is a 20-point jump from his first year in office. Another 16% say he’s been too willing to compromise, and 30% say he has struck the right balance.

By comparison, 55% say congressional Republicans have been too stubborn in their dealings with Obama – unchanged since 2009.

Asked which one or two words best describe the state of the union, the top answers were “divided” (40%), followed by “recovering” (23%), “troubled” (19%), “deteriorating” (19%), “hopeful” (16%) and “broken” (16%).

On immigration, Cuba and Keystone

Measuring pubic opinion on the recent political dust-ups between Obama and Republicans, a majority of Americans – 52% – approve of his recent executive action on immigration that removes the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants; 44% disapprove.

Sixty percent approve of the United States’ decision to grant diplomatic recognition to Cuba, while 30% disapprove.

But 41% favor construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, 20% oppose it and another 37% say they don’t know enough to have an opinion.

Top priorities for Obama and Congress to tackle

As for what the public sees as the top priorities for Obama and Congress to tackle, the top responses are creating jobs (85% say it’s an absolute priority), defeating and dismantling ISIS (74%), reducing the deficit (71%), passing legislation to secure the border with Mexico (58%) and addressing Iran’s nuclear program (56%).

They are followed by reforming Social Security and Medicare (54%), simplifying the tax code (54%), fixing and keeping the health-care law (51%) and funding infrastructure projects (50%).

At the bottom: passing legislation creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (39%), addressing climate change (34%), closing the Guantanamo Bay prison (24%) and signing trade agreements with Asian nations (20%).

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Jan. 14-17 of 800 adults (including 280 cell phone-only respondents and another 21 reached on cell phone but who also have a landline). The overall margin of error is plus-minus 3.5 percentage points.