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By Deputy political director
NBC News
updated 3/3/2009 6:31:43 PM ET 2009-03-03T23:31:43

After Barack Obama's first six weeks as president, the American public's attitudes about the two political parties couldn't be more different, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds.

Despite the country's struggling economy and vocal opposition to some of his policies, President Obama's favorability rating is at an all-time high. Two-thirds feel hopeful about his leadership and six in 10 approve of the job he's doing in the White House.

"What is amazing here is how much political capital Obama has spent in the first six weeks," said Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, who conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "And against that, he stands at the end of this six weeks with as much or more capital in the bank."

By comparison, the Republican Party — which resisted Obama's recently passed stimulus plan and has criticized the spending in his budget — finds its favorability at an all-time low. It also receives most of the blame for the current partisanship in Washington and trails the Democrats by nearly 30 percentage points on the question of which party could best lead the nation out of recession.

But the poll also shows potential dangers for Obama and the Democrats. For instance, there's a sizable gap between the president's personal popularity and the popularity of his policies.

And it contains some hope for Republicans, given the public's concerns about the costs of Obama’s policies and programs. "When does gravity begin for President Obama?" McInturff asked.

Obama’s high marks
In the survey, 68 percent have a favorable opinion of the president, including 47 percent whose opinion is "very positive" — both all-time highs for Obama in the poll. Moreover, 67 percent say they feel more hopeful about his leadership and 60 percent approve of his job in the White House.

Yet the percentage of Americans who are confident that Obama has the right goals and policies for the country — 54 percent — is slightly smaller, suggesting that the president is more popular than his policies are. An example: 57 percent tend to support the stimulus, compared with 34 percent who tend to oppose it.

Still, these attitudes about Obama have helped fuel a big jump in the percentage of Americans who believe the U.S. is headed in the right direction, according to the poll. In January’s NBC/Journal poll, 26 percent said the country was on the right track; now 41 percent think that.

McInturff attributes this jump to Democrats who have been pleased by Obama’s actions — such as the stimulus’ passage, his announcement that he will close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and his declaration that most U.S. troops will be out of Iraq by Aug. 2010. “If you’re a Democrat, that’s a pretty good six weeks compared to the last eight years in their mind,” he said.

A “long leash”
These high marks for Obama come at a time when Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the economy. Only seven percent say they're satisfied about the state of the economy, which is an all-time low in the poll. What's more, a whopping 76 percent believe the economy still has a ways to go before it hits rock bottom.

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Obama, Hart says, "has done a Herculean job in raising the spirits and mood of the American public against what is an economic tsunami."

Video: Chuck Todd crunches the numbers According to the poll, part of the reason why Obama's numbers remain high despite these economic concerns is that the public doesn't blame the president for the current state of the economy. Eighty-four percent say this is an economy Obama inherited, and two-thirds of those people think he has at least a year before he's responsible for it.

"That's a long leash," McInturff says. "It normally doesn't last that long. But believe me, that's a good place to start."

Yet McInturff cautions that while these numbers suggest a patient public, "Americans are notoriously impatient people."

A tough six weeks for the GOP
While the poll — which was conducted of 1,007 adults from Feb. 26 to March 1, and which has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points — finds Obama in a strong position after his first six weeks as president, the same isn't true for Republicans.

Just 26 percent view the Republican Party positively, which is an all-time low for the party. That's compared with 49 percent who have a favorable view of the Democratic Party.

In addition, a combined 56 percent say the previous Bush administration deserved "almost all" of the blame or a "major part" of the blame for the partisanship in Washington, and a combined 41 percent say the same of congressional Republicans.

By contrast, only 24 percent say that of congressional Democrats and just 11 percent say that of the Obama administration.

Also, the public overwhelmingly believes the GOP's opposition to Obama's policies and programs is based on politics: 56 percent say they're trying to gain political advantage, versus 30 percent who say they're standing up for their principles.

Finally, Americans don't seem to have confidence in the Republican Party when it comes to the economy. By a 48-20 percent margin, they think the Democratic Party would do a better job of getting the country out of the recession.

Republicans, Hart argues, "have been tone deaf to the results of the 2008 election... They never heard the message. They continue to preach the old-time religion."

McInturff, the GOP pollster, agrees. "These are difficult and problematic numbers."

Concerns about pork and spending
Nevertheless, Republicans can take comfort that some of its political messages are resonating with the public. The top three concerns about Obama's stimulus were that it contains too much pork-barrel spending, that its tax cuts are too small and that the spending is focused in the wrong areas.

What's more, 61 percent say they're more concerned that the federal government will spend too much money and will increase the size of the deficit, than they are concerned that the government will spend too little money in trying to get out of the recession.

Still, in the first six weeks of his administration, Obama and the Democrats find themselves in a much stronger position than their GOP counterparts.

"It is an amazing feat in terms of what Barack Obama has accomplished against the most difficult terrain one could imagine," Hart says.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News.

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