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First thoughts: Obama's leadership moment

Obama gets a leadership moment, and it couldn't have come at a better time for him… In fact, the Rolling Stone article might have been the best thing that has happened to him in a while… New NBC/WSJ poll has brutal numbers for Obama, and shows his trouble with the middle… BP is less popular than O.J. Simpson or Philip Morris… GOP retains its midterm edge in our poll, but it also shows why candidates like Rand Paul and Sharron Angle are vulnerable, even in this environment… And there's little buyer's remorse for Bush or Palin.

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Obama's leadership moment: Talk about turning a lemon into lemonade. President Obama's firing yesterday of Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- and replacing him with Gen. David Petraeus -- provided him with a leadership moment at a time he desperately needed it. Our brand-new NBC/WSJ poll (conducted before the Rolling Stone article came out) shows that Obama's scores on being able to handle a crisis, on being decisive, and having strong leadership qualities all have plummeted since last year. What's more, the Petraeus move also potentially gives Obama a parachute if Afghanistan is indeed unwinnable. Indeed, check out what GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said yesterday: "Dave Petraeus is our best hope. If things don't change, nobody can pull it out in Afghanistan." So in terms of giving him a leadership moment, er, commander-in-chief moment, as well as political cover if the situation in Afghanistan doesn't improve, that Rolling Stone article might turn out to be the best thing to have happened to President Obama in quite some time.

*** Yo, Michelle: Our new NBC/WSJ poll is pretty brutal for President Obama. Picture Rocky Balboa after seven rounds -- bruised, bleeding, black eye. That's what Obama looks like in our poll. But Obama hasn't been knocked down or knocked out, yet he certainly looks wobbly. And to beat this analogy to death, a defender would argue that it appears he's taking on Apollo Creed (the economy), Clubber Lang (concerns about the deficit), and Ivan Drago (the oil spill) all at the same time. For the first time in our survey, Obama's approval rating is upside down (at 45%-48%); for the first time in his presidency, more than 60% believe the country is on the wrong track; and for the first time in his presidency, Obama's "very negative" score on the feeling thermometer nearly matches his "very positive" score. The White House has recently been fond of using the phrase "inflection point" to indicate a new chapter in terms of their handling of the oil spill. Well, this poll is potentially an inflection point in terms of public opinion on this president. After months of keeping his head about water, he's now been dragged down to be unpopular as the rest of Washington.

*** Trouble with his mid-section: Much of the erosion in Obama's numbers has come from the middle. His approval among independents is upside down at 37%-52%; his approval in the suburbs is 44%-50%; his approval among suburban women is at 44%-51%; and his approval in the Midwest -- which was an important source of strength for him in 2008, in both the primaries and general election -- is at 44%-52%. What continues to sustain Obama, even during these tough times, is his base. African Americans approve of his job by a whopping 91%-5%; Hispanics back him 60%-33%; those 18 to 34 approve of his job by a 53%-40% (though that's down); and Democrats back him 76%-17% (though that's also down a few ticks). Our pollsters wouldn't say if Obama's overall approval rating has reached its floor, but they say that the way he gets his numbers up is for the right track/wrong track numbers to improve. And that means more people feeling better about the state of the economy and the situation in the Gulf.

*** BP -- less popular than O.J. or Philip Morris: Speaking of the Gulf spill, there is little doubt that it has played a significant role in the president's declining poll numbers. In our survey -- conducted AFTER his Oval Office address and his work getting BP to set up a $20 billion escrow account -- 50% STILL say they disapprove of his handling of the spill, versus 42% who approve. Nevertheless, the president fares a tad better than others on his handling of the spill as 48% believe he has done more or as much as expected in dealing the spill, compared with 39% who say the same of Congress, 36% who say that of the federal government, and just 27% who say that about BP. Indeed, the poll shows that only 6% hold a favorable rating of the oil company itself. And in the history of the NBC/WSJ poll, Saddam Hussein (at 3%), Fidel Castro (3%), and Yasser Arafat (4%) have had lower favorable scores, and O.J. Simpson (11%) and tobacco-maker Philip Morris (15%) have had higher ratings. Wow. Heckuva job, Tony.

*** The GOP's midterm edge: Turning to the midterms, the poll shows the Republican Party with the edge heading into November. The GOP holds a two-point advantage over Democrats (45%-43%) on our generic-ballot question. And while that's margin of error stuff, this is the Republicans' second-straight lead here, which hasn't occurred in our poll since 2002; the trend in favor the Republicans IS significant. And among high-interest voters, the GOP has a whopping 21-point edge over Democrats (56%-35%). So we've seen three key indicators move in the GOP's direction: generic ballot, right track/wrong track, and Obama's approval rating.

*** Why Rand Paul and Sharron Angle are vulnerable, even in this environment: But the poll also contains warning signs for both parties. One question in our poll measured a host of candidate attributes to consider. The highest-scoring ones included: "supporting cutting federal spending" (which would appear to benefit GOP candidates); "favors financial reform of Wall Street" (which would seem to help Democrats), "favors the new law in Arizona on immigration" (advantage GOP), and "supports repealing the health care reform law" (advantage GOP). The lowest-scoring ones were: "is endorsed by Sarah Palin" (advantage Democrats), "supported the economic policies of George W. Bush" (advantage Democrats), "supports abolishing some federal agencies, including the Department of Education" (like some GOP candidates have called for), and "supports phasing out Social Security" (as some GOP candidates also are advocating). Folks, here is your playbook on how Democrats are going to try to win races this cycle.

*** No buyer's remorse: And here's one last set of numbers from our poll: Despite Obama's lower ratings, the public isn't experiencing buyer's remorse with George W. Bush. His fav/unfav score in our poll is 29%-50% -- which is similar to his rating as he left office. By the way, Sarah Palin's fav/unfav is also upside down in the poll at 29%-43%.

Countdown to AL run-off: 19 days
Countdown to GA primary: 26 days
Countdown to OK primary: 33 days
Countdown to KS and MO primaries: 40 days
Countdown to CO and CT primaries: 47 days
Countdown to Election Day 2010: 131 days

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