What's behind Obama's rising poll numbers?

President Obama made a surprise appearance Tuesday December 20, 2011 in the White House Briefing Room to discuss extension of the payroll tax cut.

Story highlights

  • When Obama began his jobs push, his approval rating was 43%, new poll has it at 49%
  • President's campaign aides see the rise as partly a reaction to the GOP primary battle
  • Poll also says GOP brand has suffered; 43% of voters have a favorable view of the GOP
  • Numbers for the Democratic Party have held steady at 55%

The gridlock and partisanship that threatens to ruin Christmas in Washington could be an election year gift for President Barack Obama's campaign.

A growing number of voters , 50% compared to 44% in March, trust Obama to solve the nation's problems while the percentage of those with faith in congressional Republicans is slipping, according to a CNN/ORC International Poll.

CNN Poll: President's approval nearing 50%

For the Obama team, the poll numbers seem to validate the president's fall and winter strategy: Intone the jobs message like a mantra while squaring off against a do-nothing Congress and congressional Republicans in particular.

"We can't wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job. Where they won't act, I will," the president told a Las Vegas audience in October.

Congress has accomplished a few things, passing trade bills and a tax credit for unemployed veterans. But thanks to repeated failed votes on elements of the jobs bill and leaving town for the holidays with a payroll tax extension unresolved, the lasting image is one of inaction.

McCain: Payroll tax cut showdown 'harming' the GOP

Call it a self-inflicted wound.

When the president began the jobs push with his speech to Congress on September 8, his approval rating was at 43%. The new CNN/ORC Poll shows it now at 49%. That's the highest it has been since Osama Bin Laden was killed and up 5 points since November.

What's happened in a month?

On December 6, the president doubled down on his jobs message with a speech in Kansas in which he promised to work toward an economy that promotes fairness and opportunity for all Americans.

"I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share and when everyone plays by the same rules. ... They're American values, and we have to reclaim them," he said.

Meanwhile, Congress has failed to pass an extension of a payroll tax cut, which could cost $1,000 a year for an average family and affects about 160 million Americans.

Boehner: 'I need the president to help'
Boehner: 'I need the president to help'


    Boehner: 'I need the president to help'


Boehner: 'I need the president to help' 01:11

The president's campaign aides also see the poll numbers as a reaction to a contentious Republican primary.

Obama calls House to vote on extension
Obama calls House to vote on extension


    Obama calls House to vote on extension


Obama calls House to vote on extension 01:45

"These numbers will go up and down. But the debates over the last few months have clearly had an impact," said Stephanie Cutter, Obama 2012 deputy campaign manager. "On one side they've seen a president fighting to reclaim the security of the middle class and on the other side a group of people sort of paying lip service to the middle class, then actively working against them. That doesn't go unnoticed and the data is beginning to show that.

"There's a difference between putting middle class in your talking points and actually doing something about what they're going through."

Republicans are quick to point out that the president is starting from historic lows for an incumbent.

"These numbers are better than they were in November but it's nothing to be jumping up and down about. Instead of being really, really bad, it's just really bad for the president," said Republican pollster Ed Goeas.

The CNN/ORC Poll also shows that the Republican brand has suffered. Only 43% of voters have a favorable view of the Republican Party, down 6 points since June, while the numbers for the Democratic Party have held steady at 55%. The view of the GOP has slipped since the debt-ceiling debacle and top Democratic operatives are convinced the Republican Party has taken more of the blame for the gridlock in Washington. They believe the GOP is likely to take a further hit if the payroll tax cuts aren't extended.

However, it's unclear how the payroll tax cuts standoff will play in the end, because Obama's re-election hopes are tied to the overall health of the economy.

If Congress fails to act, recession would be a "significant threat," said Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics. And few fates are worse for an incumbent president than running against a recession.