WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's approval rating is creeping upward. The economy is growing. And a flurry of aggressive executive actions on domestic and foreign policy have energized the West Wing.
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Obama's challenge now is to figure out how to prevent this burst of momentum from being more than just a blip on the radar of his presidency's waning years.
To the White House, the immediate answer lies outside of Washington. On Wednesday, Obama starts three days of travel to Michigan, Arizona and Tennessee for what advisers are calling State of the Union "spoilers" — previews of the manufacturing, housing and education proposals that will be part of the president's Jan. 20 address to Congress.
Not on Obama's schedule during his first workweek of the new year: a meeting with the leaders of the Republican-led Congress, which officially began Tuesday. That won't happen until early next week.
"I'm confident there are going to be areas where we disagree and there will be some pitched battles," Obama said of the new GOP leadership, though he added that he was hopeful for a "productive 2015."
The contours of the first fight were set within hours of the new Congress being gaveled into session. Republicans moved forward with plans to advance legislation approving the Keystone XL oil pipeline — and the White House vowed to veto the measure.
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Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Kentucky lawmaker who is the new Senate majority leader, said Wednesday from the Senate floor that Obama's veto threat just after the new Congress convened "is anything but productive."
Beyond Keystone, the Republican priority list for 2015 includes making changes to Obama's signature health care law, seeking to block his executive actions on immigration and rolling back environmental regulations favored by the White House.
It should come as no surprise that the president's to-do list looks far different.
During an event at a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, Obama was expected to tout the resurgence of the American automobile industry that followed the government bailout. He'll then travel to Phoenix to discuss proposals for making home ownership more affordable, and close his roadshow Friday in Tennessee, where he is expected to tout the state's new policy to pay for community college tuition.
Officials said the president planned to make additional stops around the country next week in an effort to gain traction heading into the State of the Union.
"Typically, we try to hold all the news until the day of the speech," White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in a post on the blogging platform Medium. "But this year, we figured there's no time like the present."
Escaping Washington has long been the Obama White House's go-to strategy for generating momentum during tough stretches of his presidency. White House aides say one of the president's biggest frustrations last year was his inability to travel around the country in support of Democratic candidates given his party's wariness of his deepening unpopularity.
But in something of a surprise shift, the president heads out on this week's fly-around with his approval rating showing some signs of strengthening. After dropping to 40 percent in the Gallup daily tracking poll around Election Day, the latest survey shows 46 percent of Americans approve of the president's job performance. The percentage of people who disapprove of the president has also fallen below 50 percent.
The slightly improving environment for the president comes amid a surge in economic growth that's been fueled by hiring gains, cheaper gas prices and rising consumer confidence. Administration officials are warily watching slowdowns in other parts of the world, including Europe, but say they believe the recent U.S. economic gains will be sustained, unlike other periods of progress under Obama's watch that proved to be fleeting.
The president's team also attributes some of the president's improved standing to his willingness to eschew Congress and instead wield his executive powers. He angered many Republicans by unveiling plans to allow more than 4 million people living in the U.S. illegally to stay in the country. That action was followed by a surprise decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba after a half-century freeze.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that while the president wasn't completely turning his back on the new Congress, he would continue to seek out areas to act on his own. He said he hoped that strategy would result in a continuation of the recent "trend in the poll numbers."
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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