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Things are looking up for President Obama

President Barack Obama speaks during an East Room event at the White House June 1, 2015, in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama speaks during an East Room event at the White House June 1, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Obama's standing with the American public is improving as he nears the final 18 months of his presidency, and a combination of solid economic numbers, finding common ground with Republicans, and a diminished need to serve as the partisan leader of Democrats should augur well for the stretch run.

The economy added 280,000 jobs in May, the largest spike this year, and unemployment remained stable at 5.5 percent, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. Jason Furman, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, pointed to the increase of 262,000 private sector jobs in May, and 12.6 million over the past 63 months, as an indication of the health of the economy.

This graph shows how the economy went from hemorrhaging jobs during the financial crisis to adding them consistently over the past five-plus years.

Bureau of Labor Statistics via the White House Council of Economic Advisers

Obama still isn't getting as much credit for the improvement of the economy as he might, but his numbers have been better this year than they were last year. In late May, a CBS/New York Times poll of 1,022 adults found that 45 percent of Americans approved of the way he was handling the economy and 49 percent disapproved. The approval number was between 45 percent and 49 percent in four surveys taken this year by the two news organizations or CBS alone. Last year, his numbers ranged from 38 percent to 43 percent in CBS and CBS/New York Times polls.

"The President has been clear that he believes there is a strong case for us to make, looking at the economic data, about the significant progress that our economy has made since the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression," White House spokesperson Jennifer Friedman said in an email to Vox. "That said, the president believes there is more work that needs to be done to strengthen our economy and further expand economic opportunity for middle-class families."

Not surprisingly, the trends in Obama's overall approval ratings have improved as Americans' views of his handling of the economy have risen because jobs and the economy typically rank as the issues most important to them. Obama's approval numbers have risen and stabilized this year, compared with 2014, as the Gallup daily tracking polls show.

Gallup daily tracking polls of President Obama's approval and disapproval ratings among adults.


But Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center, said that while a growing economy can improve Americans' view of the president, lingering worries about their own outlooks can limit that effect.

"It's hard for people to rate the president overwhelmingly favorably when they're facing daily struggles," he said.

The enemy of my enemy is my frenemy — for now

No one expects Obama and his Republican adversaries in Congress to start clinking champagne glasses in the East Room anytime soon. But it's harder for Republican leaders to whack him consistently when they find themselves on the same side on headline-grabbing issues. And they've been working with Obama a lot more in the early months of what the White House calls the "fourth quarter" of his presidency.

Speaker John Boehner pushed White House–backed revisions to the Patriot Act through the House last month, with 196 of the 338 overall votes for the bill (58 percent) coming from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was critical of Obama and the bill — arguing it watered down essential national security protections — but shepherded it through a bumpy ride to enactment all the same. Of the 67 senators who voted for it, 23 were Republicans.

Obama's biggest legislative push this year is on trade, an issue that unites Republicans and divides Democrats. It's got Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, praising the president.

"I think the president on this particular issue is right, and therefore I think this is good for our country, good for the people I represent," Ryan, a House member from Wisconsin, told CNN's Dana Bash in an interview that aired Friday.

Two tracks

Obama seems to have found the formula he likes for policymaking: work with lawmakers when he can and go around them when he can't. Executive actions on climate change, immigration, Cuba policy, and the like have shown Democrats that he's willing to flex his muscle on behalf of their priorities. Indeed, there's no shortage of Democratic constituencies lining up for help with executive action right now.

But the early legislative agenda, including a "fix" on Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, trade deals, and the revision and extension of Patriot Act provisions, has lent itself to bipartisanship. There's little doubt that will break down at some point: Democratic leaders are promising to block all Republican spending bills over the GOP's effort to backfill Obama Pentagon cuts with emergency war-funding money.

But for now, Obama's still looking to complement his use of executive power with legislative action.

"He will continue to use each and every tool he has to pursue an aggressive agenda to deliver for working families across the country, both by taking action on his own and by working with Congress in a bipartisan fashion when possible," Friedman said.

Tony Fratto, a Treasury and White House official in President George W. Bush's administration, said working across the aisle could help Obama with the public.

"I see the president's approval ratings as mostly a function of the economic environment. As the economy improves and is seen as durable, his approval ratings will be bolstered," said Fratto, whose firm, Hamilton Place Strategies, is advocating for fast-track authority for the president. "A win on trade, which is generally popular, can be seen as a bipartisan win, and that would give a boost. Incidentally, a bipartisan win on trade would boost perceptions of Congress, too."

The triangulation machine

Beyond the allure of bipartisanship, trade has given Obama an opportunity to distance himself a bit from his party's base.

It's been the centerpiece of an increasingly vitriolic war between Obama and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Warren's status as a heroine of the left naturally makes Obama look more centrist when he fights her, and that may be helpful for him going forward.

Their first big row was over Antonio Weiss, the Obama treasury undersecretary nominee initially blocked by Warren. She wasn't pleased when Obama did an end-run around her by giving him a political appointment that didn't require Senate confirmation. Then came her criticism of Obama's trade agenda, to which he fired back last month by saying she is "absolutely wrong" on the merits. And just this week, Warren wrote a harsh letter to Obama's Securities and Exchange Commission chief, Mary Jo White, accusing her of leaving a trail of "broken promises" in not being a tougher Wall Street overseer.

If Obama were looking for a way to show he's not beholden to his party's base, he could hardly find a better one than fighting with Warren.

Handing over the reins

Obama is fond of reminding people that he's not running for president again. It's not a completely liberating epiphany — the desire to protect and nurture his legacy is reason enough not to just follow every whim.

But it's an important observation in this way: As the 2016 presidential race heats up, Obama will become more of a supporting actor for his party and less its leader. That role will fall to the Democratic nominee for president.

That should free him from some of the overtly partisan work he's done in past election cycles — particularly from raising money for himself and hitting the stump as a candidate while he's running the country.

He should benefit from that, too.

WATCH: President Obama on why he's so polarizing