On the eve of the first anniversary

ON THE EVE OF THE FIRST ANNIVERSARY…. With the release of a new Washington Post/ABC News poll, the network’s summary of the landscape seems fairly reasonable.

Bruised if unbroken, Barack Obama faces shrinking public confidence, increasingly negative views of the country’s direction and far lower ratings than those he carried triumphantly into the White House a year ago this week.

But it could be worse.

Despite their disappointments, 53 percent of Americans in this ABC News/Washington Post poll approve of Obama’s job performance overall — 15 points lower than his opening grade, but still just over half at the one-year mark. He remains personally popular, if far less so. And confidence in his leadership, as weakened as it is, greatly exceeds that in the Republicans in Congress, or, for that matter, in his own party.

The president’s 53% approval rating is up a few points from December, and his personal qualities still remain relatively strong — 57% believe Obama understands the problems of people like them, and 63% consider him a strong leader. A 58% majority have a favorable view of the president personally. Notwithstanding the assumptions of Dowd, Gerson, and other Villagers, 55% approve of the president’s handling of the terrorist threat, and 62% approve of his handling of the failed Christmas-day terror plot. Looks like the Cheneys’ efforts to undermine the administration fell flat.

For the White House, that’s the good news. The bad news is the public remains in a deeply sour mood, and has grown increasingly impatient. Obama’s numbers have dropped below the 50% threshold on the economy and health care, and the number of Americans who believe the country is on the right track is lower than it’s been since February. Ouch.

But in keeping with the year-long trend, Republicans are simply not the beneficiary (pdf) of public discontent. Only 24% of the public has confidence in congressional Republicans “to make the right decisions for the country’s future.” The number for congressional Democrats is at least a little better at 32%, while the president’s number is nearly double that of the GOP at 47%.

What’s more, “when it comes to assigning blame for the nation’s economic woes, about twice as many fault the George W. Bush administration as do Obama’s.”

Different people will look at these numbers and draw different lessons, but for me, the bottom line remains pretty straightforward: the Obama presidency still has incredible opportunities. The president has led at a time of painful economic difficulties; he’s tackled the most challenging domestic policy debate of the last 75 years; and he’s faced a relentless, odious opposition that has been focused on destroying his presidency since the day of the inauguration. And he still has a 53% approval rating.

The success of Year Two will, oddly enough, be dictated in part by the voters of Massachusetts in just a couple of days. But for all the potholes and hurdles that remain, President Obama has pulled the nation out of a deep ditch. His standing, like the public’s optimism, will improve if stays on track and resists the urge to slam on the brake.