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First Thoughts: As bad as it gets?

New NBC/WSJ poll: If this is as bad as it gets for Obama, he’s in good shape for 2012… If not, watch out… What’s benefiting the president right now: a strong base and the fact the public finds him likeable… Palin’s poor poll position… A red flag for Obama on Afghanistan… Afghanistan review is out… House to vote on the tax deal… And Biden tells GOP senators opposing New START to let the Senate vote on the measure.

*** As bad as it gets? Here's the clear conclusion from our new NBC/WSJ poll: If the current political environment for President Obama has hit rock bottom, then his prospects for re-election are quite good. If it hasn't, then watch out. Despite all the bad news the White House has endured over the past several months -- an unemployment rate near 10%, the BP spill, the midterm results -- the president's standing has remained steady. His job-approval rating stands at 45% (which isn't far off from where it was a year ago, when it was 47%); his economic handling is at 42% (same as it was a year ago); and 72% say they like Obama personally, even if they don't like his policies. What's more, in potential 2012 match-ups, he bests Romney by seven points (47%-40%), Palin by 22 points (55%-33%), and a relatively generic candidate like John Thune by 20 points (47%-27%). Of course, Thune and Romney both hold him under 50%.

*** What’s benefiting Obama: Two things appear to be benefiting Obama. The first is his strong base: 87% of African Americans, 76% of Democrats, and 53% of Latinos approve of his job. It’s worth noting, however, that Obama’s numbers among Dems have dropped since cutting his tax deal with the Republicans (from 82% last month to 76% now). But NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D) sees the slight erosion as a flesh wound. (Those same Dems who move away from the president in the job rating question come back to Obama when matched up against the 2012 Republicans.) The second thing benefiting Obama is that an overwhelming number of Americans find him likeable. He gets his highest marks in the poll for having a strong family and family values (74% give him a high rating here), being easygoing and likeable (68%), being inspirational and exciting (51%), and having strong leadership qualities (49%). His lowest marks come on the professional side: being a good commander-in-chief (41%), achieving his goals (33%), uniting the country (30%), and changing Washington (24%). Bottom line: The jury's still out on whether the president is going to be successful or not, as over 40% tell us it's STILL too soon to judge what kind of president Obama is going to be.

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*** Palin’s poor poll position: The other chief headline in the NBC/WSJ poll is Sarah Palin’s starting position for 2012, if she decides to run. In addition to Obama leading her by a whopping 22 points -- compared with Romney’s seven-point deficit, and a generic GOP candidate’s three-point deficit in the poll -- Palin’s negative rating has climbed to 50%. That’s the highest negative rating for anyone measured in this poll (and it’s two points lower than Nancy Pelosi’s negative rating from last month). And get this: The only major subgroups that Palin wins in a head-to-head match-up with Obama are Republicans, conservatives, and FOX viewers. That’s it, folks. NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) says that this is “a sobering starting point” for Palin if she decides to run for president.

*** A red flag on Afghanistan for Obama: Yet there’s also a red flag in this poll for Obama -- and it comes from his left flank. But it’s on the issue of Afghanistan, not taxes. While Americans, by a 53%-to-45% margin, approve keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2014, those numbers are reversed among Democrats. In the survey, 53% of Dems oppose that and just 46% approve. If Obama gets a challenge from the left -- and that still remains a big if -- then this could be the opening, Hart says. As we've said before, size-of-government issues animate the right and are usually the basis for conservative primary challenges. Anti-war issues animate the left and usually are the basis for liberal primary challenges.

*** Afghanistan review is out: “And speaking of Afghanistan, the president's review of the war is out. The New York Times says it concludes "that American forces can begin withdrawing on schedule in July, despite finding uneven signs of progress in the year since the president announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops, according to a summary made public Thursday. The summary said the United States continues to kill leaders of Al Qaeda and diminish its capacity to launch terrorist attacks from the region. It cited some signs that the United States and its allies have halted or reversed inroads by the Taliban in Afghanistan and strengthened the ability of Afghan forces to secure their country, but acknowledged that the gains are fragile and could be easily undone unless more progress is made towards hunting down insurgents operating from havens in neighboring Pakistan."

*** House to vote on the tax deal: Turning to the remaining work on Capitol Hill, the House today is expected to vote on the tax-cut compromise after the Senate easily passed it by an 81-19 vote yesterday. The House will hold two votes, NBC’s Shawna Thomas reports. The first is on a "motion to concur" with everything in the Senate bill -- except for the estate-tax language. House Dems would establish a higher estate-tax rate than what the White House negotiated with Senate Republicans. If that vote fails, as expected, then the House would then take up a motion to concur with the original Senate language. If that passes, it would immediately proceed to the president for his signature. By the way, our poll shows that 59% approve of the tax-cut deal and 36% disapprove. What’s more, 61% believe the agreement was a fair compromise for both Obama and Republican leaders, while 23% think Obama gave up too much and 10% say Republicans gave up too much.

*** Biden on the tax deal: In an interview with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, Vice President Biden discussed the White House’s priorities in the tax deal. “So I had two dictates from the president. ‘Joe, one, make sure whatever you negotiate grows the economy next year.’ Every major econometric model points out the deal that I was asked to negotiate will increase the growth of the economy from 2.3 to 2.5 to 3.7 to 4. That means tens of thousands of -- millions of additional jobs, over a million additional jobs. Secondly, he said to me, ‘Joe, make sure our folks aren't hurt,’ meaning middle class and working class people. Guess what? Every one of the tax breaks they had, from college tuition to child care tax credit, which the Republicans opposed, is part of that deal. Every single tax break for middle class Americans has been preserved.”

*** Biden’s message on START: Also on Capitol Hill today, the Senate is expected to begin debate on New START. In the NBC/WSJ poll, 70% believe the Senate should approve this nuclear-arms reduction treaty. In his interview with Mitchell, Biden delivered this message to START opponents like GOP Sens. Jon Kyl and Jim DeMint: “Let the Senate vote. Overwhelming, the American people support the START treaty. Overwhelmingly, the United States Senate supports the START Treaty. It's clearly in our national interests. Every former national security adviser, secretary of defense, the secretary of state on the Republican Party from George Shultz to Colin Powell thinks it's essential we pass this treaty. Get out of the way. There's too much at stake for America's national security. And don't tell me about Christmas. I understand Christmas. I have been a senator for a long time. I've been there many years where we go right up to Christmas.”

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