After a difficult summer and a contentious fall, President Obama's job-approval ratings are showing signs of improvement -- a crucial indicator of his re-election chances as he seeks to overcome voters' doubts about his economic stewardship.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that Americans are still broadly disapproving of Obama's handling of the economy and jobs, the top issues, but that views of his overall performance have recovered among key groups, including independents, young adults and seniors.
At the same time, the public's opinion of Republicans in Congress has continued to deteriorate, potentially putting the president in a position to benefit politically from his standoff with the GOP-led House over extending the payroll tax cut.
Obama's job-approval rating is now at its highest since March, excluding a temporary bump after the killing of Osama bin Laden: Forty-nine percent approve and 47 percent disapprove.
Perhaps more important to the battle over the payroll tax cut, Obama has regained an advantage over Republicans in Congress when it comes to "protecting the middle class." In the new poll, 50 percent say they trust Obama on this issue, compared with 35 percent who choose the GOP -- a major change from last month, when the two sides were more evenly matched on the question.
The president is locked in a dead heat in a potential general-election contest against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the new poll finds, with each winning support from 47 percent of registered voters. The two have been closely matched all year and are now about even among crucial independent voters.
The president leads a potential race against former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia by 51 to 43 percent among registered voters -- thanks in part to an eight-point edge among independents.
Meanwhile, sharpening his message ahead of voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney on Tuesday attacked Obama as Gingrich, his chief rival, accused Romney of running a "negative smear campaign" in the GOP primary.
"We will not surrender our dreams to the failures of this president. We are bigger than the misguided policies and weak leadership of one man. America is bigger than President Obama's failures," Romney said in New Hampshire. "This America of long unemployment lines and small dreams is not the America you and I love. These troubled years are President Obama's legacy, but they are not our future."
Romney, a former businessman, told voters in an evening speech that his policies would turn the United States into an "opportunity society" while Obama's vision for an "entitlement society" would make more people dependent on government welfare.
In Iowa, Gingrich accused Romney of allowing a super PAC to fuel a "negative smear campaign" and called on Romney to demand that ads run on his behalf by such groups be positive. Gingrich said Romney's comments aimed at distancing himself from anti-Gingrich ads were misleading and false.
"Understand, these are his people running his ads, doing his dirty work while he pretends to be above it," Gingrich told reporters after a campaign appearance at a heavy machinery plant in Ottumwa, Iowa. "I don't object to being outspent. I object to lies. I object to negative smear campaigns."