WASHINGTON — Barack Obama: Mr. Likable.
At least that's what the president's advisers hope Americans who are frustrated by the economy and looking for someone to blame will remember when they vote next November.
His team is emphasizing the president's "regular guy" appeal, putting him in small-town diners, at roadside pit stops and on Jay Leno's couch. Those settings are designed to highlight his likeability, a political strength, even as the economy, a political weakness, sputters along a year before the 2012 election.
During his recent bus tour through North Carolina and Virginia, the president surprised lunchtime crowds at small-town restaurants and barbecue joints. He took fielded questions from students at a rural high school. One girl asked him if he knew pop singer Justin Bieber.
While out West last week, Obama talked with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show" about his trip to a popular chicken and waffle house in Los Angeles, where he ordered the No. 9 "Country Boy" on the menu. The president also joked about first lady Michelle Obama's penchant for handing out healthy Halloween treats.
"She's been giving, for the last few years, kids fruit and raisins in a bag. And I said, 'The White House is going to get egged. ... You need to throw some candy in there ... a couple Reese's Pieces or something,'" Obama said to laughter.
All kidding aside, Obama's strong personal favorability ratings in polls are the counterpoint to his sagging job approval numbers. Advisers privately acknowledge that's what is helping his overall standing hold fairly steady in the mid-40s.
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 54 percent of adults had a favorable impression of the president, while 44 percent had an unfavorable one. It's a picture virtually unchanged since the end of his first year in office.
The same survey found that 78 percent considered Obama a "likable person." Compare that with Obama's job approval ratings in the same poll: 46 percent approve while 52 percent disapprove of his performance in office.
As November 2012 draws closer and the economy shows little sign of improvement, it's unclear whether his personality will help him offset the frustration many voters feel about economic progress.
Pollsters say a president's job approval rating tends to more predictive of re-election, but when people like a president personally, they're more inclined to be open to his arguments.
"It's better to be liked or admired than not to be, especially when you're in tough times," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
Added Republican pollster David Winston: "He has a clear track record at this point and that's what his job approval reflects. He can't avoid his record but it's not like people are not willing to listen him."
American politics has seen its share of presidents promoting their personal side, perhaps even more so in the Internet age, as they work to connect with voters. Many have waxed nostalgic about mixing with people outside the nation's capital.
But with the country divided over his policies and worried about the economy, Obama may need to rely on his likability more than most.
His current personal approval ratings fall just below some of his predecessors at this point of his presidency.
In early October 2003, 60 percent had a favorable opinion of President George W. Bush, according to Gallup. By the 2004 election, the number had dipped to 51 percent as he won re-election.
Bill Clinton's personal approval rating grew from 34 percent in April 1992, as he battled for the Democratic nomination, to more than 60 percent by the summer of 1992, according to Gallup. In late September 1995, as he sought a second term, Clinton had a favorability of 61 percent, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll.
President George H.W. Bush's favorable ratings exceeded 60 percent in mid-October 1991, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll. By the fall of 1992, his personal approval had fallen to the low 40s, according to Gallup, and he lost to Clinton.
How voters evaluate the personal and political sides of Obama will play a large role in next year's election.
Ann Anderson, a college administrator in Homer Glen, Ill., voted for Obama in 2008 but said she would probably support either Republican Mitt Romney or Rick Perry next year.
Anderson, an independent, said Obama was a "charming, attractive individual" and a "man of integrity" but with so many of her friends and relatives out of work, she wondered about the president's ability to steer the economy.
"I don't need a president to be charming. I need him to be an effective leader," Anderson said.
Dr. Martin Weinapple, a child psychiatrist in Princeton, N.J., said he would likely support Obama again because he felt the president was "someone who thinks things through" during tough times.
Officially, Obama is focused this fall on getting his jobs plan through Congress.
But he tends to show his more playful side at fundraisers, joking about things people can relate to: turning 50 and watching his hair get a little grayer.
In Denver, he told students he and the first lady graduated from law school with a combined debt of about $120,000. At a General Motors plant, Obama hopped in the front seat of a compact Chevy Sonic with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
Sports is one area where connecting with voters comes naturally.
During the 2008 campaign, Obama regularly played pickup basketball and famously sunk a three-pointer at a military base in Kuwait. For three straight years, the president has talked about his NCAA tournament bracket with ESPN's Andy Katz. Next month he stops in San Diego to watch a Michigan State-North Carolina basketball game on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson.
A longtime Chicago Bears' fan, Obama indulged every sports fan's fantasy when he invited the 1985 Super Bowl champions to the White House. The team's first visit was postponed because of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and never rescheduled.
Obama joked about Jim McMahon's head bands, the Super Bowl Shuffle and rubbed elbows with former coach Mike Ditka.
"This is as much fun as I will have as president of the United States, right here," Obama said. "This is one of the perks of the job."
AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta and News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
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