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NBC/WSJ poll: Public lowers expectations heading into Obama's 2nd term

As President Barack Obama is set to begin his second term next week, he finds himself with a job-approval rating above 50 percent and with majorities supporting his general direction on gun control and immigration, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

But he also confronts an American public holding mixed attitudes about the next four years, concerns about the economy and a belief that tougher times lie ahead.

Click here for the full poll (.pdf)

It’s a stark reversal from four years ago, when Obama’s first inauguration – despite taking place in the midst of the Great Recession – contained high expectations and seemed more like a “coronation,” says Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted the survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.

“If 2009 was all about hope, 2013 is about the ability to cope,” Hart adds of the public’s lower expectations about the economy and reducing partisanship in Washington.

General support for Obama’s gun, immigration agenda
In the poll, 52 percent of adults approve of the president’s overall job performance, which is down one point from last month. In addition, 49 percent approve of his handling of the economy, versus 48 percent who disapprove.

What’s more, the public appears to be receptive to the broad outlines of his top agenda items for a second team.

Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

President Barack Obama speaks on proposals to reduce gun violence on Jan. 16, 2013 in the South Court Auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House in Washington.

Fifty-six percent believe that the laws covering the sale of firearms should be stricter, compared with a combined 42 percent who want them less strict or kept the same.

That’s the most support on this particular question since 2006, but it’s less than the 60 percent to 70 percent who supported stricter gun laws during the 1990s, including when Congress passed an assault-weapons ban in 1994.

Related: NRA more popular than entertainment industry, poll says

Also, for the first time in the poll, a majority of Americans -- 52 percent -- favor allowing illegal immigrants who hold jobs to apply for legal status in this country.

And in the latest fiscal fight in Washington, more respondents say they would blame congressional Republicans (45 percent) than Obama and congressional Democrats (33 percent) if the nation’s debt limit isn’t raised and the country is unable to meet its obligations.

As for views on Obama’s qualities as president, he gets the best marks for being easygoing and likeable (61 percent give him high marks here), having the ability to handle a crisis (55 percent), being compassionate (53 percent), being knowledgeable and experienced (53 percent) and being a good commander in chief (51 percent).

His lowest marks come on achieving his goals (44 percent give him high marks here), working effectively with Congress (29 percent) and changing business as usual in Washington (28 percent).

'A lack of buoyancy'
Yet looking ahead to Obama’s next four years in office, Americans have tempered their expectations.

The public is split how Obama will fare in a second term, with a majority of respondents -- 51 percent -- saying they’re either “optimistic” or “satisfied.”

By comparison, a combined 48 percent say they are “uncertain” or “pessimistic.”

Asked another way, 43 percent are optimistic about the next four years, while 35 percent are pessimistic; 22 percent have a mixed opinion.

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd talks about President Barack Obama's new set of gun control proposals.

In addition, more than seven in 10 are dissatisfied with the current state of the economy, and just more than a third are either “very” or “fairly” confident in Obama’s ability to promote a strong and growing economy.

And 60 percent believe the coming year will be a time to hold back and save because of harder times ahead, versus 34 percent who instead think it will be a time of economic expansion and opportunity.

“The poll reveals a lack of buoyancy in looking ahead,” Hart, the Democratic pollster, says.

Adds GOP pollster McInturff: “This feels like a long four years, and it feels like a long four years ahead.”

Public continues to sour on Congress, GOP
But if Americans have tempered the expectations for Obama’s second term, they have soured even more on Congress and the Republican Party.

Just 14 percent of adults approve of Congress’ job (which is near the all-time low in the poll), while 81 percent disapprove (which is close to its all-time high).

What’s more, 49 percent hold a negative view of the Republican Party – its highest negative rating in the survey since 2008. Only 26 percent have a positive view.

By comparison, the Democratic Party has a net positive rating, with 44 percent holding a favorable view of the party and 38 percent holding an unfavorable one.

And the conservative Tea Party movement – which took off in Obama’s first year as president – also finds its popularity at an all-time low in the poll, with 23 percent viewing it favorably and 47 percent unfavorably.

On Iraq and Afghanistan
Soon approaching the 10-year anniversary of the Iraq war, nearly six-in-10 say the war wasn't worth it, versus 35 percent who say it was.

Yet asked another way, 55 percent of respondents think the war was successful.

Meanwhile, a narrow majority of Americans – 51 percent – say the war in Afghanistan hasn’t been worth it, though 62 percent believe the war there has been successful

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Jan. 12-15 of 1,000 adults (including 300 cell phone-only respondents), and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.