President Obama speaks about the economy at an Arlington, Va., fire station… (Ron Sachs / Pool )
Republican infighting during the primary campaign and President Obama's election-year reset appear to have boosted the incumbent's standing with voters, particularly independents, a new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds.
The president's job approval rating has hit 50% for the first time since just after the killing of Osama bin Laden, representing an 8-point rebound from his October low point.
Voters are still evenly divided on the question of whether Obama deserves a second term, as he argued Sunday night that he did. Fifty percent say he does while 48% say he does not. At a similar point in Bill Clinton's first term, 47% said he did while 49% said he did not.
But Obama has opened up a 51% to 45% lead over front-running Republican Mitt Romneyamong registered voters in a hypothetical general election matchup; Romney had a 2-point lead just three weeks ago.
On handling of the economy, likely the key issue to be litigated in the national campaign, 44% now approve of Obama’s performance, his highest score in more than a year.
That's not to say Americans think the economy is getting better. Just 11% describe the state of the economy as good, while 46% say not so good and 42% say poor. And by a 50% to 44% margin, voters say they trust Romney more than Obama at handling the economy.
The two are tied on the question of who would be better at creating jobs, while Romney has a more significant edge on who would be better at handling the budget deficit -- 52% to 39%.
The poll, it should be noted, was in the field for two full days before the release of new jobs report showing the nation's unemployment rate had dipped to 8.3%.
Obama has not yet explicitly engaged with the man seen as his most likely general election foe, though his recent speeches have included some indirect jabs at recent comments that have dogged Romney on the trail.
In an interview with NBC's Matt Lauer conducted before the Super Bowl, Obama declined to answer directly whether he thought Romney could "identify with the middle class and the underclass" in America.
"I think most people are thinking the election is nine months away. The last thing we need is to start it right now when the other side hasn't determined its nominee," he said. But, he added, "what people also want to see is that everybody is doing their fair share, that we're all pulling together, that we're creating ladders of opportunity for all Americans."
"Whoever the Republican nominee is, I fundamentally disagree with a formula that would go back to the same policies that got us into this mess in the first place," he said.
By a 53% to 36% margin, voters say they think Obama better understands the economic problems people in the country are having.
Obama also leads on who voters trust to protect the middle class (56% to 37%) and to handle taxes (49% to 45%). And he has a clear advantage on questions of international affairs and terrorism.
To the extent that Obama's numbers have improved, it is because of the rebound among independents. According to the Post, 47% of that block now approve of Obama's job performance, up from a low of 34% last fall.
Last month, Romney led Obama by 12 points among independents. Now, the two are evenly split -- 48% for Obama and 47% for Romney.
In the GOPrace, Romney is still the front-runner among registered Republican voters, leading Gingrich 38% to 24%.
Ahead of a three-week hiatus between nominating contests, the former Massachusetts governor has reason to hope the campaign comes to an early end. Only about a third of all voters say they approve of what they've been hearing from the Republican candidates for president. And more than half of respondents say that the more they hear about Romney the less they like him, while 24% say they like him more.
The survey of 1,000 adults, including 879 registered voters, was conducted Feb. 1 to 4.