WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's approval rating has hit its highest point in two years – 60 percent – and more than half of Americans now say he deserves to be re-elected, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll taken after U.S. forces killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
In worrisome signs for Republicans, the president's standing improved not just on foreign policy but also on the economy, and independents – a key voting bloc in the November 2012 presidential election – caused the overall uptick in support by sliding back to Obama after fleeing for much of the past two years.
Comfortable majorities of the public now call Obama a strong leader who will keep America safe. Nearly three-fourths – 73 percent – also now say they are confident that Obama can effectively handle terrorist threats. And he improved his standing on Afghanistan, Iraq and the United States' relationships with other countries.
Despite a sluggish recovery from the Great Recession, 52 percent of Americans now approve of Obama's stewardship of the economy, giving him his best rating on that issue since the early days of his presidency; 52 percent also now like how he's handling the nation's stubbornly high 9 percent unemployment.
The economy remains Americans' top issue.
Impressions of the nation's economic health have improved following last Friday's positive jobs report, which showed American companies are on a hiring spree. More people now say the economy got better in the past month and that it's likely to continue doing so in the coming year.
Also, more Americans – 45 percent, up from 35 percent in March – say the country is headed in the right direction. Still, about half – 52 percent – say it's on the wrong track, meaning Obama still has work to do to convince a restive public to stay with the status quo.
Some have seen enough to know they'll stick with him.
"I was happy about bin Laden," says Brenda Veckov, 42, of Hollidaysburg, Pa. "I put my fists in the air. To me, it was just a little bit of closure for the United States."
"The president made the right decisions on this one. And I will vote for him again."
Not everyone has such an optimistic view of Obama.
"I'm very concerned" about the country, says Susan Demarest in Snellville, Ga., 56, who didn't support the Democrat last time and won't this time. "I'm in my 50s and I worry that I'm not going to be able to retire at a reasonable age and enjoy the end of my life because of Medicare and Social Security and the debt of the country." Still, she says Obama doesn't carry all of the blame.
Obama's overall political boost comes at an important time. He is embarking on his re-election campaign and is in the early days of a debate with Republicans who control the House over raising the country's debt limit. But it's unclear how long Obama's strengthened standing will last in the aftermath of bin Laden's death.
Americans say they overwhelmingly approve of the military's handling of the risky nighttime mission in Abbottabad, Pakistan. But it hasn't changed public opinion on the war in Afghanistan; most still are opposed to it, and a big majority favors Obama's plan to withdraw all combat troops by 2014.
Overall, Obama's approval rating is up slightly from 53 percent in March and a 47 percent low point following last fall's midterm congressional elections, in which Republicans won control of the House and gained seats in the Senate. It was 64 percent in May 2009, just months after he was sworn into office.
The AP-GfK results were striking in that they found Obama with a higher approval rating since the bin Laden operation than some other polls that put him in the low 50s. Such variations can result from differences in questions and methodology and are particularly common when an issue is volatile and information is changing rapidly.
Some conservatives criticized the AP-GfK poll as heavy with responses from Democrats. AP-GfK polls use a consistent technique that starts with a random sample of the population and lets respondents identify their own political leanings. In this poll, 46 percent of respondents identified themselves as Democrats or leaning that way, while 29 percent said they were Republicans or leaning to the GOP. How people identify their leanings fluctuates in polls along with their other political opinions. The change in party identification in the current AP-GfK current poll is not a statistically significant shift from the previous poll in March, and does not by itself explain the poll findings.
In another finding, 53 percent in the latest poll say Obama deserves to be re-elected, while 43 percent say he should be fired, the first time in an AP-GfK poll that more people say he should get a second term than not.
"I have the impression that Barack Obama works really hard for Americans and that I see his leadership as something that should be continued," says independent voter Allison Kaplan, 25, in Austin, Texas, who voted for him in 2008. She praises the administration for handling bin Laden's raid well – "the way that it happened was the correct way" – and it reinforced her support of the president.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans who call themselves political independents now approve of him; only about half did in March. They were critical to his 2008 victory but many had fled as his administration increased government spending and passed a sweeping health care overhaul. They could just as easily turn away again between now and next fall.
Bryan Noonan, 23, of Hampstead, N.H., is one of those independents. He backed Obama in 2008 and is likely to vote for the president again, given the other options.
"I haven't been real impressed by the Republicans," he says. He doesn't hold Obama accountable for the sluggish economy or rising gas prices, issues Noonan says seem "out of his hands. It's not like there's a magic solution."
Noonan likes Obama's foreign policies and applauds the killing of bin Laden, saying: "I was pretty much relieved, happy to hear that we got him. The president absolutely deserves credit."
Among the poll's other findings:
_ Sixty-nine percent say Obama will keep America safe, up from 61 percent in March; 65 percent call him a "strong leader," up from 57 percent.
_ Sixty-three percent say Obama cares about people like them; 63 percent also say that he understands the problems of ordinary Americans.
_ Sixty-three percent view Obama favorably, up from 59 percent in March.
Still, his re-election is far from certain. And there are warning signs in the poll.
_Nearly two-thirds of people – 61 percent – disapprove of his handling on gas prices, even though there's little a president can do about them.
_Less than half give him positive marks on dealing with the federal budget deficit or taxes, two big upcoming issues.
The Associated Press-GfK Poll was conducted May 5-9 by GfK Roper Public Affairs and Corporate Communications. It involved landline and cellphone interviews with 1,001 adults nationwide and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.2 percentage points.
Sidoti is the Associated Press' chief national political writer; Agiesta is deputy polling director. Polling Director Trevor Tompson, News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius and AP writer Nancy Benac contributed to this report.