WASHINGTON (AP) – The economy is recovering, the White House is dealing with multiple controversies, and President Barack Obama appears generally unaffected either way.
He's getting no significant uptick in approval from gains in housing, jobs and the stock market. Likewise, he has so far seen no downtick from the recent storms over the terror attack in Benghazi, Libya, the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS and a leak investigation that has swept up the phone records of Associated Press journalists.
All in all, recent polls show the president sustaining an overall approval rating around 50 percent.
The data suggests the economy could be insulating Obama from the immediate troubles confronting his administration. But it also indicates that while a growing number of those surveyed are more optimistic about the economy, they are evenly split on whether they approve or disapprove of his handling of it.
A Washington Post/ABC poll found that 48 percent approve of his handling of the economy, and 48 percent disapprove. That's a better showing for Obama than his economic approval ratings in 2011 and 2012. But it doesn't match the 56 percent who told Post/ABC pollsters last week that they feel the economy has begun to recover. Clearly, there is a subset of people who believe the economy is improving but either think it's not enough or don't give Obama credit.
David Winston, a Republican pollster and a top adviser to House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he has found that about 60 percent of Americans are roughly equally divided between those who find the economic advances acceptable and those who don't believe the economy has improved at all. The remaining 4 out of 10 Americans believe the economy has improved but at a rate that is unacceptable.
"They are the folks who are defining the direction," he said.
The economy remains the top issue with the public, and after a deep recession and financial crisis, its weaknesses are still evident. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a stark reminder on Wednesday, testifying to Congress that the unemployment rate remains well above "longer-run normal levels," that the rate of long-term unemployment is historically high and the labor force participation rate has continued to move down.
"Moreover," he added, "nearly 8 million people are working part-time even though they would prefer full-time work."
Still, employment has grown by about 6 million jobs since its low point in March 2009, and the unemployment rate dipped 2.5 percentage points since its October 2009 high of 10 percent.
And even as it crowds out other issues as a top concern, the economy is not attracting the public's attention as it once did. A Pew Research Center poll conducted last week found that 61 percent of those polled were following economic news stories either very or fairly closely. That compares with the 75 percent who were paying some or much attention to economic news in October. Andrew Kohut, the founding director of the Pew Research Center, said that modest loss of interest and the Post/ABC finding of the percentage of respondents who feel the economy is recovering – the highest yet in Obama's presidency – can help the president weather the current eruptions.
He noted that a rising economy boosted President Bill Clinton at the height of his impeachment over the Monica Lewinski scandal in 1998, giving him the highest approval ratings of his administration. At the time, the Gallup Poll showed Clinton's ratings for handling the economy soared to 81 percent.
"I'm not suggesting we're on that kind of roll, but the public has begun to feel a little bit better after many years of the Great Recession," Kohut said. "If people are feeling better about the economy, not focused on bad economic times and not paying a great deal of intense attention to the controversies swirling about the White House here in Washington, all of that tends to insulate him a bit."
The White House has been trying to make its economic case publicly and privately, in recent Obama speeches about job creation initiatives or in White House sessions with lawmakers. Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Alan Krueger met with three Democratic senators and 13 House Democrats on Tuesday in part to draw attention to the economic improvements.
Given modest economic growth of 2.5 percent in the first three months of this year, participants said Krueger made a point of emphasizing that growth was 4.1 percent if only the private sector was taken into account. That figure tracks with other economic assessments. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, says he too expects the drag on the economy caused by government tax increases and spending cuts to be about 1.5 percentage points for the entire year.
Yet, aggressively promoting the economy publicly has its risks and could be premature.
"It's tough to celebrate any economic news, both because it can be ephemeral and turn, and because we're so far from where we need to be by way of growth and employment," said Matt Bennett, a veteran of the Clinton White House and now senior vice president at Third Way, a Democratic-leaning policy group.
What's more, Winston, the GOP pollster, said Republicans now have an opportunity to make their own economic case as the White House works to deal with the fallout of the Benghazi, IRS and AP phone record controversies.
"Boehner is starting to put some stuff out – you'll see the word 'jobs' a lot," Winston said.
John Feehery, a former top aide to ex-House Speaker Dennis Hastert, predicted Boehner would keep capitalizing on public apprehension about Obama's health care law.
"Boehner is going to keep pounding on health care as a job killer," he said.
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