Good economic sign: Obama's rising poll numbers

Obama economy polls

Searching for more proof the U.S. economy is coming back to life? Just look at President Obama's rising poll numbers.

After being stuck in the basement for much of the past two years, a recent CNN/ORC poll reveals Obama's approval rating climbed to the highest level since May 2013.

Yes, it's still at a paltry 48%. That's hardly anything to crow about. Yet considering how divided the electorate remains, there appears to be a shift in sentiment. The main driver looks like the economy, which finally kicked into high gear in recent months.

Not only are employers ramping up hiring, but GDP accelerated to 5% in the third quarter. That's a level unseen since 2003. And consumer sentiment is also on the rise, aided by plummeting gas prices.

"This economy has quite a head of steam. It's like a perfect storm to the upside," said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at the Potomac Research Group, which provides policy analysis to investors.

"Obama will get credit for it. Was it all because of him? No. But it's like how if a team is doing better, the quarterback gets a disproportionate amount of the credit. Well, the team is doing better right now," he said.

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Consumers are feeling happier: Regardless of their political affiliation, investors should cheer the improving poll numbers because they are a sign that consumer sentiment is on the rise. That's hugely important for the U.S. economy, which is about 70% driven by consumer spending.

Obama is also benefiting from a burst of hiring by previously-reluctant U.S. employers. Nonfarm payrolls surged by 321,000 jobs in November, crowning 2014 as the best year for job growth since 1999.

That could be one reason why Obama's approval rating among millennials, a group badly hurt by the post-recession job market, soared by 10 percentage points in the CNN poll.

"Presidents benefit from the good times and they suffer from the bad times," said Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia.

While he cautioned that more polling is needed, he said recent polls showing an improvement in Obama's approval are clearly being driven by the "improving economy, lower gas prices and more jobs."

Crude oil has plummeted below $55 a barrel, levels unseen since the Great Recession. Some analysts believe it could drop as low as $30.

The government estimates the average driver will save $550 on gas this year. That's money Americans can save or spend elsewhere.

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Easy money still here: Of course, there's no guarantee the economy will continue humming along. The U.S. will need to overcome sluggish growth in Europe and Asia. The dive in oil prices will hurt energy-producing states like Texas and North Dakota.

Don't tell that to the stock market, which is also adding to the good feelings among consumers. Late last month the Dow climbed above the 18,000 mark for the first time ever. The S&P 500 rose a healthy 11% in 2014, capping off three years of double-digit gains. That's the best winning streak since the late 1990s.

"The greatest risk to the economy is that it could overheat. Yet interest rates are going to stay remarkably low for many months to come. You almost couldn't put together a more positive scenario for investors," said Valliere.

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