WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama enters the latest budget showdown with Congress with his highest job- approval rating in three years and public support for his economic message, while his Republican opponents' popularity stands at a record low.
Fifty-five percent of Americans approve of Obama's performance in office, his strongest level of support since September 2009, according to a Bloomberg National poll conducted Feb. 15-18. Only 35 percent of the country has a favorable view of the Republican Party, the lowest rating in a survey that began in September 2009. The party's brand slipped six percentage points in the last six months, the poll shows.
Americans by 49 percent to 44 percent believe Obama's proposals for government spending on infrastructure, education and alternative energy are more likely to create jobs than Republican calls to cut spending and taxes to build business confidence and spur employment.
"The Republicans are not offering any new solutions," said poll respondent Cynthia Synos, 62, a political independent who lives in the St. Louis suburb of Greendale, Mo. "Their answer is always tax cuts and incentives for business. I've never heard them say anything innovative to spark the economy that would help the other 85, 90 percent of people that have to deal with the economy as it is."
The findings come as Congress and the White House are trying to reach an agreement to stop $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts in federal spending during the next nine years beginning March 1. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the measures would reduce economic growth by 0.6 percent this year, enough to eliminate 750,000 jobs.
Obama's positive standing with the public provides him with political leverage as Americans assess blame for any furloughs, disruption of government services or damage to the economy if the spending cuts aren't averted. The repercussions also could help shape the battleground for the 2014 midterm congressional elections.
Beyond the fiscal showdown, the poll shows traction for the president on immigration, with 47 percent approval of his handling of the issue compared with 38 percent disapproval. Fifty-three percent of Americans support a path to citizenship while 18 percent back a process toward legal status for illegal residents already in the country if certain conditions are met.
Feelings toward Obama are the most positive since December 2009, with 56 percent of Americans holding a favorable opinion of the president and 40 percent a negative one. The Democratic Party he leads is viewed favorably by 47 percent and unfavorably by 43 percent.
Public views of congressional Republicans' record places an added burden on them in the standoff over automatic spending cuts. Americans by 43 percent to 34 percent say they are more to blame than Obama and Democrats for "what's gone wrong" in Washington. Still, another 23 percent aren't sure which side bears more responsibility.
Republicans "are not willing to work at all with the president," said poll respondent Horace Lee Boyd, 64, a political independent and retired wholesale merchandiser who lives in Cullman, Ala. "When you cease to compromise, you cease to accomplish anything. We're at a stalemate. He's willing to compromise and they aren't."
The White House has its own vulnerabilities, the poll shows. The public remains discontented with the state of the nation, with 54 percent saying the country is on the wrong track, though that is the lowest portion to say so since September 2009.
Americans also disapprove of Obama's handling of the federal budget deficit by 55 percent to 35 percent. Political independents disapprove by more than 2-to-1: 61 percent disapprove compared with 26 percent who approve.
"I understand he inherited some of these problems, but he needs to tighten the belt," said poll respondent Rakesh Sethi, 55, a political independent and natural wellness speaker who lives in San Ramon, Calif. "You have to live within your means and when you continue go beyond your means it is a recipe for disaster in the long run."
The CBO projects the federal budget deficit for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2013, will be $845 billion, or 5.3 percent of gross domestic product, down from the prior year's deficit of $1.1 trillion, or 7 percent of GDP.
The country is about evenly divided on Obama's handling of the economy, with 47 percent approving and 49 percent disapproving. His handling of negotiations with congressional Republicans also splits Americans about evenly, with 42 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving.
Independents are more disgruntled. They disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy 55 percent to 40 percent and disapprove of his approach to negotiating with Republicans by 46 percent to 35 percent.
He does better in the international arena. Fifty-two percent of Americans approve of Obama's handling of relations with other countries and 59 percent approve of his handling of terrorism.
A majority of Americans are ready to grant legal status to immigrants who arrived in the country illegally.
Thirty-five percent back a path to citizenship "now" for those who don't have criminal records, have paid taxes, learn English and pay a fine, conditions the Obama administration would impose along with an eight-year waiting period. Eighteen percent would grant them citizenship or legal status once measurable improvements were made in border security, which reflects a bipartisan Senate proposal released last month.
Another 18 percent would grant them legal status, though not citizenship, an idea several Republican senators proposed in the last Congress. Only 23 percent would deny any path to legal status for immigrants who entered the country illegally.
"If you'd like to have a salad for dinner, you need to have someone who is willing to go pick the lettuce," said poll respondent Pete Cable, a chemist and Republican who lives in Chapel Hill, N.C. "Most of the illegal immigrants who are here are working. They are providing a valuable service. They should be allowed to become citizens."
In distributing work visas to new immigrants, Americans would look to employment skills and family ties. Twenty-nine percent say high-skill workers such as engineers should get top priority for additional visas, while 24 percent say first dibs should go to immigrants who are reuniting with families. Fifteen percent would put farm workers at the front of the line and 14 percent low-skill workers, such as construction and hotel employees.
The poll of 1,003 U.S. adults was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa based polling firm, and has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.