President Barack Obama has scored his highest approval rating among Californians since he first took office, as Golden State residents continue to be optimistic about the future of the nation thanks to a growing economy and left-leaning policies from the White House.
A Field Poll released Wednesday showed 62 percent of registered voters in California approve how Obama is handling his job, up from a low point of 46 percent in September 2011. About one-third of respondents -- mostly Republicans -- disapprove of Obama.
It's Obama's highest approval rating in California since March 2009, two months after he was sworn in. Still, it lags behind the high points experienced in California by George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bill Clinton during the dot-com boom, George H.W. Bush during the early '90s and Ronald Reagan during the mid-'80s.
But there's plenty of time for Obama to catch up, and optimism is high. Some 48 percent of respondents said the country was on the right track, while 44 percent said it was off track -- one of the most favorable ratings seen in the past 10 years. Still, Californians are actually slightly more downbeat about the direction of the nation than they were the last time Field Poll asked them five months ago.
Though only about half of the country approves of Obama, pollsters say the President has gained popularity in liberal California by appealing to his Democratic base, most recently in last week's State of the Union address. Obama called for raising the minimum wage to $9, investing $50 billion in infrastructure and ramping up gun control laws.
"It's the closest thing to a progressive agenda that I've seen from a politician," said Berkeley resident Joseph Cavallero, 27, a registered independent voter who approves of Obama. "It's a good time, I think, to be American."
Field Poll Director Mark DiCamillo noted nearly 9 out of 10 Democrats and two-thirds of independents approve of Obama, both up significantly. Just 20 percent of GOP respondents endorsed Obama, though that has increased slightly.
"With Obama, I think it's largely going to be tied to the economy, how people view the direction of the country and whether he is able to get any of his legislation through," DiCamillo said.
Democrat Christine Williams of Palo Alto said she liked how Obama is handling Republican opposition in Congress, particularly when he "didn't back down" during the fiscal cliff negotiations.
"I think that that is the sign of a strong leader," said Williams, 28. "I think that he's doing a really good job handling a pretty terrible situation."
But Jeffrey Slavich, of Saratoga, said he did not think the country was headed on
the right path largely because leaders on both sides of the aisle in Washington refuse to work together on many key issues.
"It drives me batty," said Slavich, 59, who leans toward Republican ideals. "I think we've gotten to a real polarized place, and it's unfortunate that people can't have more of a civil discussion (during) disagreements."
The poll also showed that 22 percent of Californians approved of the job Congress is doing, a dismal rating but still the highest in three years and up from a low point of 9 percent in September 2011.
Finally, just 5 percent of respondents said they identify "a lot" with the Tea Party, the fewest since Field Poll began tracking the party at the start of 2010 and down from a high point of 14 percent in September 2010.
Field Poll surveyed 834 random registered voters, in English and Spanish, from Feb. 5 through Sunday, with a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.5 percent.
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/RosenbergMerc. ___