Americans are feeling better about the economy, but they aren't giving President Obama credit as he seeks re-election, according to the latest IBD/TIPP survey.
The Economic Optimism Index shot up 11% in January to 47.5, still below the neutral 50 level but the fifth straight monthly gain and the best reading since February 2011.
Meanwhile, the Presidential Leadership Index fell 3.3% to 46.7, little changed over the last several months despite less gloomy views on the economy.
Most ominously for Obama, the president's support fell considerably among independents, with their presidential reading tumbling 9.7% to 41.7. They disapproved of his job performance by 52%-39% in January vs. 46%-44% in December.
Obama will find it very difficult to win in November without substantial support from this key voting bloc. He won them 52%-44% over GOP candidate John McCain in 2008. The IBD/TIPP poll shows that 40% of independents think Obama deserves a second term while 52% prefer a "different candidate." The re-elect numbers across all voters are 45%-49%.
January's economic bounce may reflect typical "New Year hopes," says Raghavan Mayur, president of TIPP, a unit of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, IBD's polling partner.
However, recent data suggest that the U.S. economy is gradually firming, including manufacturing and jobs. It's unclear though if that can continue with Europe falling into recession and global growth slowing significantly.
Independents also reported improvement on the personal economic situation. Twenty-three percent of independents expected the quality of their life to improve in the next six months vs. 14% in December.
"There is a wide delta between how (independents) perceive their own economic situation vs. the nation's economic situation," said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at the center-left think tank Third Way. "They have a far sunnier view of their own personal finances than the nation's. That's something Obama needs to understand."
IBD/TIPP found mixed results on national issues. On the direction of the nation, 29% were satisfied vs. 69% unsatisfied, essentially unchanged from last month. On the issue of whether the U.S. economy will be better or worse in the next six months, a net 8% said it would be worse, though that's up from 22% in December.
Two other factors may be souring Obama's image among independents. Independents are worried about the deficit. In January, 55% of independents gave Obama a grade of D or F on handling the budget, up from 49% last month.
They also may have lost patience with the president on the economy. Independents were somewhat more satisfied with federal economic policies this month, 34%-64%, up from 30%-69% in December. But that is still a big deterioration from 44%-52% in January 2011.
It seems likely that for Obama's numbers to improve with independents, the economy will have to register some very strong growth in the next six months.
That becomes all the more crucial as the number of independent voters has grown over 320,000, or 3.4%, since 2008, according to a new Third Way study. The study shows that Republicans lost over 334,000 voters since 2008 while Democrats have lost over 834,000.
"This makes independents all the more important, more so than in any recent election," said Ellis. "The IBD/TIPP poll shows Obama has his work cut out for himself with independents. He hasn't yet closed the deal with them."