WASHINGTON – Americans give higher marks to President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans after a holiday season of compromise paid dividends for both, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll.
At the start of the divided government era, the survey found that 53 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is doing his job, his best numbers since the divisive health care vote 10 months ago.
And, compared with just after the November elections, more now express confidence that Obama and the new Republican-controlled House can work together to solve the country's most urgent problems, chief among them the struggling economy.
"It's going to be difficult because there are some bleeding-heart liberals way over on the left and some uptight conservatives," said Spirit Fliege, 83, a Republican from Brentwood, Calif. "It's going to take someone who can operate very smoothly. Whether Obama can or not, we don't know."
Most people, according to the poll, now are putting their faith in Republicans to implement the changes needed to fix the economy. But a majority also now view the Democrats favorably, an oddity just two months after voters dealt Obama's party what he called "a shellacking" in congressional elections.
Still, despite expressing more optimism in certain areas, Americans are down on Congress itself. And roughly half express anger with American politics, while disappointment and frustration remain with politicians of all stripes.
"They're totally ignoring the people. They make all kinds of promises and put the shaft to the people," said Sandy Parton, 66, of Honey Grove, Texas. "I've seen them say one thing and do another."
The period during which the poll was conducted included last Saturday, when a shooting rampage in Arizona left six dead and several more injured, including a congresswoman, and touched off debate over the caustic nature of American politics.
The December lame-duck session of Congress left an imprint on Americans who had made it clear in November that they were tired of one-party rule in Washington and hungry for bipartisanship.
In a bow to that desire as 2010 ended, Obama struck a deal with Republicans to extend temporarily all the Bush-era tax cuts. And he has indicated a willingness to work with new House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on several other issues, including looming trade deals and the reauthorization of an education law.
Some people like what they see.
"He's doing the best he can with what he was handed," said Richard Cambell, 42, a truck driver from Rockingham, N.C., who says Obama deserves a second term.
The poll found that since the year began:
_Obama improved his job-performance rating by 6 percentage points, up from 47 percent just after the November elections. Disapproval is at 46 percent. He scored higher marks on handling the economy, too, as the unemployment rate edged down to 9.4 percent; 47 percent now approve, compared with 41 percent two months ago. And 59 percent view him favorably, while 40 percent view him unfavorably.
_Boehner became better known to the general public in his first foray on the political scene as a national leader. And impressions of him were about evenly divided, with 34 percent viewing him positively and 31 percent viewing him negatively.
_Republicans in Congress got a slight bump, too, though they are not nearly as popular as Obama. Now, 36 percent give them high marks, compared with 29 percent last fall. But the increase was driven entirely by people who identify themselves as Republicans. Support among independents did not change.
_On the question of whether Obama and Republicans can work in a bipartisan manner to solve what ails the country, 48 percent express some degree of optimism and 52 percent express some level of pessimism. It's an improvement from just after the elections, when 41 percent were confident and 58 percent were not.
_Democrats generally are back to being viewed in a positive light by most Americans — 53 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable. That's better than at any point during the height of the 2010 campaign. Views of the Republican Party are evenly split at 48 percent.
_More than half — 56 percent — say they are confident that the GOP can improve the economy, though slightly less — 51 percent — say they think Republicans in Congress will actually implement their campaign policy promises. And relatively few think Republicans in Congress understand the important short-term issues the country must focus on.
_People still aren't hot on Congress: 69 percent disapprove, 26 percent approve. And nearly 6 in 10 still say the nation is heading in the wrong direction.
_Democrats slightly improved their standing on most issues, most notably surpassing Republicans on handling the economy for the first time since June: 45 percent trust the Democrats to handle it, 40 percent the Republicans. Democrats also pulled even with Republicans on managing the federal budget deficit, and they expanded their advantage on handling health care.
The poll was conducted Jan. 5-10 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cell phone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta, News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.