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A Rising Economy Lifts Obama Going Into State of the Union Night

Forty-five percent of Americans say they’re satisfied with the state of the economy -- the highest number in 11 years.
Image: Recruiters wait at a booth at a military veterans' job fair in Carson
Recruiters wait at a booth at a military veterans' job fair in Carson, California, in this file photo taken October 3, 2014. The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell last week, adding to signs of a strengthening labor market. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/Files (UNITED STATES - Tags: BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT)LUCY NICHOLSON / Reuters

The most important number in our brand-new NBC/WSJ poll is this: 45% of Americans say they’re satisfied with the state of the economy -- the highest number in 11 years (since Jan. 2004). Let us repeat: 11 years!!! In other words, it means the country, mentally, has exited the Great Recession. “For the first time, we have numbers that kind of bust out of the Great Recession Era,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Bill McInturff (R). And all of this is the political backdrop to President Obama’s State of the Union address at 9:00 pm ET. His overall job-approval number now stands at 46%, which is his highest rating since Oct. 2013 during the government shutdown. And 49% of Americans approve of Obama’s handling of the economy -- the most since right after he won re-election. The country simply isn’t as mad/angry/dissatisfied as it once was. (Proof: For the first time in two years, his disapproval rating is BELOW 50%). So what happens when you get an undeniably improving economy, some (relatively) popular executive actions, and an end of a campaign season when the opposition spent millions upon millions against you? Well, you get a little wind at your back. “Throughout most of 2014, Barack Obama had a stiff wind in his face,” says NBC/WSJ co-pollster Peter Hart (D). “He starts 2015 with a slight breeze at his back.”

But GOP and Congress don’t see a similar lift

So this is Obama’s best political standing since the immediate months after winning re-election in 2012. And it’s a reminder what a truly improving economy can do -- boost a president’s job ratings, give him more political capital, and make the overall political environment more hospitable to his party heading into the next election. Strikingly, however, Congress and Republicans haven’t seen their numbers go up. Just 16% approve of Congress’ job (unchanged since December), and only 23% approve of the job congressional Republicans are doing. Maybe more significantly, only 35% believe divided government -- with Democrats controlling the White House and Republicans in charge of both chambers of Congress -- works well for the country. That’s a reverse from previous NBC/WSJ polls (in 1996, 1997 and 1999), which found majorities in praise of divided government. (This “divided government” result is a Conventional Wisdom debunking result; one of those sea change moments in public opinion.) And then there are the parties’ fav/unfav numbers. The public gives the GOP a 25%-46% rating, down from 30%-45% a month ago. By comparison, Democrats are at 35%-38%, when they were at 37%-39% in December. Bottom line: You can hardly tell from our NBC/WSJ poll that the Republican Party was the big winner from the midterm elections just two months ago. Somehow, Obama and the Democrats stole the Republicans’ post-election honeymoon. Or the Republicans somehow lost it.

Public doesn’t share many of Obama’s priorities

While President Obama -- thanks to the improving economy -- has some new political capital to spend as he delivers his State of the Union tonight, it’s worth noting that many of the priorities that he’ll address tonight aren’t necessarily shared by the public at large. Per our poll, the top priorities Americans want Obama and Congress to tackle are creating jobs (85% say it’s an absolute priority), defeating and dismantling ISIS (74%), reducing the deficit (71%), passing legislation to secure the border with Mexico (58%) and addressing Iran’s nuclear program (56%). At the bottom (out of 15 issues asked): passing legislation creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (39%), addressing climate change (34%), closing the Guantanamo Bay prison (24%) and signing trade agreements with Asian nations (20%).

Majorities back Obama’s actions on immigration and Cuba

Although the public doesn’t share Obama’s priorities when it comes to climate change and closing Gitmo, it has given his recent executive actions a thumbs-up. A majority of Americans -- 52% -- approve of his recent executive action on immigration that removes the threat of deportation for millions of undocumented immigrants, while 44% disapprove. In addition, 60% approve of the United States’ decision to grant diplomatic recognition to Cuba, versus 30% who disapprove. But 41% favor construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, 20% oppose it and another 37% say they don’t know enough to have an opinion.

Is Obama’s DIFFERENT State of the Union rollout the new normal?

Here is what different about tonight’s State of the Union: We think we know more about the big items in the speech BEFORE it’s given than in any previous State of the Union. Free community college. Paid sick leave. Tax hikes on the rich. Tax cuts for the middle class. Expanded internet broadband. The question we have, especially in our new media environment: Is this the new normal? Do much of it beforehand, because the public (and media) will forget what happened two days ago? Other questions we have: How much does Obama address bipartisan cooperation? And how much time does he spend on terrorism and ISIS? And how much detail does he delve into when it comes to counter-terrorism strategies?

Republicans -- at least right now -- like Mitt more than Jeb

Finally, our NBC/WSJ poll finds that Republicans have a more favorable view of Mitt Romney (52%-15% fav/unfav) than they do of Jeb Bush (37%-15%).

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