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Obama gains foothold; GOP autumn surge behind him

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 31 2011 9:41 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Six months after Republicans alarmed Democrats with a midterm election wave, President Barack Obama has shaken off the jitters and found his political footing despite sluggish economic growth and deep public anxiety about the direction of the country.

The White House now displays an air of confidence, bolstered in part by achievements such as the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. commandos and the financial success of an auto industry that Obama bailed out over the objections of many.

Obama is also benefiting from the absence of negatives. The economy, while lethargic, is growing. The private sector is creating jobs. Natural disasters, while deadly and plentiful, have not developed into governmental crises. Skyrocketing gas prices, which fed the public's economic fears, are now subsiding. And the GOP's signature budget plan, ambitious in its spending reductions, has lost its luster with the public.

"It is likely he will be re-elected, in my opinion," veteran Republican pollster Wes Anderson says.

What's more, the president appears to be enjoying the still lingering but more intangible effects of his election in 2008, a watershed for the nation. Polls show Obama with strong favorability and likability ratings even as he faces ambivalence over his handling of the presidency.

Former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman Fergus Cullen said the symbolic power of Obama's election as the first black president carries enormous good will that will be difficult for Republicans to overcome.

"Centrist voters and the ones who decide elections are still fundamentally rooting for the guy," Cullen said. "People who don't view politics in ideological terms give him the benefit of the doubt, and that is an incredible political asset to have."

Obama's inner circle, always wary of sounding too self-assured, is not hiding its optimism.

"I would rather be us than them," said one of the president's top political advisers, David Axelrod.

Pollster Andrew Kohut of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center compared Obama's place in 2011 to President Ronald Reagan's at a similar point during his first term, more than a year before he won re-election in 1984.

"They both came from an ideological wing of the party and they are perceived that way. Both were hit with real bad economies and the public turned on them," Kohut said. "Right now, Obama's ahead of where Reagan was in '83."

Still, this view of the president is a snapshot in time. Events can test presidents and sour the public mood quickly. Axelrod is quick to note that it would have been hard to predict the turmoil that erupted this spring in the Middle East and in North Africa or the Greek fiscal crisis last year that caused the stock market to plummet, and led employers to retrench.

"The things that worry me are the things I don't know," he said.

Further instability in the Arab world and increased tensions with Pakistan could create the image that Obama doesn't have control over his foreign policy. Consumer confidence has fluctuated and remains far below the levels that indicate a healthy economy. The Conference Board announced Tuesday that its Consumer Confidence Index, which had risen in April, fell in May amid worries over inflation, job prospects and personal income growth.

Though the private sector has been creating jobs, public hiring by local and state governments is weak and unemployment remains high at 9 percent, a dangerous level for a president seeking re-election. Since the Great Depression, only Presidents Reagan and Gerald Ford confronted unemployment rates as high or higher at some point in their administrations. But the rate has dropped since November's 9.8 percent high. For Obama, the trend line could be as important as the unemployment rate itself.

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