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First Thoughts: Are the political winds changing?

Are the political winds changing? … New NBC/WSJ poll has Obama approval at 53%... Also, 40% now label him a political moderate -- which is maybe why we haven’t heard “Obama is a socialist” in a while… But is this bump for Obama a transition or a transitory moment?... Poll also shows a short honeymoon for the GOP… Handicapping 2012… And polling birthright citizenship.

*** Are the political winds changing? Exactly two years ago today, Barack Obama was sworn in as the country’s 44th president -- a sign that the political winds were firmly at the Democratic Party’s back. Then, a year ago today, we had discovered the winds had shifted with the news that Scott Brown (R) had just captured Ted Kennedy’s old Senate seat, ending the Dems’ filibuster-proof majority. It began a slow descent for the Democrats and culminated with the November "shellacking." But are the political winds once again changing? After a stretch that included the bipartisan legislative achievements in the lame duck, mostly positive economic news, and Obama’s speech in Arizona come these numbers in the new NBC/WSJ poll: Obama’s approval is at 53% (where he hasn't been since before those summer town halls in ‘09, that's 18 months ago); confidence that the economy will improve in the next 12 months jumped eight points from last month; and the Dem Party’s fav/unfav went from a net negative (37%-41%) to a net positive (39%-35%). “The last six weeks have been the best six weeks the president has had in his first two years in office,” said NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D).

*** Maybe this is why we haven’t heard “Obama is a socialist” in a while: We’ll take it one step further: These might have been Obama’s best six weeks since Fall 2008. Indeed, the bump in Obama’s approval was across the board -- independents moved from 35% approval to 46%; Democrats went from 76% to 86%, and Republicans went from 11% to 15%. Perhaps the most surprising result in the poll? Try 40% labeling the president as a political moderate, compared with 45% who see him as a liberal and 11% who view him as a conservative. That moderate number is the highest for Obama in the NBC/WSJ poll, even higher than it was before his inauguration. 

*** A transition or a transitory moment? But Hart and co-pollster Bill McInturff (R) say these poll numbers present this question for Obama, especially with the 2012 election on the horizon: Is this a transition, or is it a transitory moment? After all, Bill Clinton saw a bump after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, but it lasted just a couple of months. (Of course, Clinton went on to easily win re-election.) And there are still plenty of warning signs for Obama and the Democrats. A majority (56%) thinks the county is on the wrong track; 50% disapprove of Obama's economic handling; and a combined 82% say the Afghanistan war has either gotten worse or stayed the same, and 71% believe the U.S. will ultimately have to withdraw and leave the country without a stable democratic government. Here’s one other way to look at Obama’s numbers: This might be a ceiling for him, at least in this current economic climate. If you’re not going to approve of his job after Arizona, then you aren’t going to approve of it later…

*** The GOP’s short honeymoon: But the bigger warning signs in the poll appear directed at the party that's been in control of the House for just two weeks. Only 25% say the Republicans in Congress will bring the right kind of change (versus 42% who said that about the Dems in Jan. 2007, and 37% who said that about the GOP in Jan. 1995). In addition, a majority (55%) believe congressional Republicans will be too inflexible in dealing with Obama, while an equal number (55%) say Obama will strike the right balance. And then there's this: The GOP's fav/unfav has gone from a net positive in December (38%-37%) to a net negative now (34%-40%). "I think this has been a pretty short Republican honeymoon," McInturff says. Hart adds, "I think the president has the benefit of the doubt, and the Republicans -- based on this data -- have the burden of proof."

*** Handicapping 2012: Looking ahead to the 2012 presidential race, the NBC/WSJ poll shows Obama leading Mike Huckabee by 10 points (51%-41%) and Newt Gingrich by 19 points (54%-35%). The December poll had him leading Mitt Romney by seven (47%-40%) and Sarah Palin by 22 (55%-33%). But keep in mind: At this stage of the 1996 cycle, McInturff says, Bob Dole was leading Bill Clinton in the NBC/WSJ poll. That tells us one of two things: Either these polls aren't that reliable this far out, or that Obama enters the 2012 in a much stronger position than Clinton did in '96. For the first time, our poll also handicapped the ’12 GOP field. Leading the pack are Romney (the first choice of 19% of Republicans and independents) and Huckabee (18%) -- followed by Palin (14%), Gingrich (10%), Ron Paul (8%), and Tim Pawlenty (at 5%). We also asked "second choice," and if you take Palin out, the person who benefits the most is Huckabee. He would lead a Palin-less GOP primary, not Romney. By the way, here’s another 2012 poll: Per Quinnipiac, 48% of Ohio voters say Obama deserves re-election, while 44% say he doesn’t. The president’s approval in the Buckeye State is 49%-46%.

*** Polling birthright citizenship: We’ll leave you with a final set of numbers from our NBC/WSJ poll. In it, 50% believe the U.S. should continue to grant citizenship to all children born in the country, including children of illegal immigrants. Yet 47% think this should be changed so children of illegal immigrants aren’t automatically granted citizenship. The divide breaks along party lines: 67% of Democrats want to continue granting automatic citizenship, while 69% of Republicans don’t. By the way, Hispanics support birthright citizenship by a nearly 80%-20% margin. Does this make the issue untouchable for Republican presidential candidates who think they might be the nominee?

Countdown Chicago’s mayoral election: 33 days
Countdown to Election Day 2011: 292 days
Countdown to the Iowa caucuses: 382 days
* Note: When the IA caucuses take place depends on whether other states move up

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