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Obama takes US economic bright spell on the road
[WASHINGTON] Riding high on a stronger economy, President Barack Obama is setting out on a US tour to highlight the improved numbers, with hopes that his approval rating follows suit.
A newly elected Congress led by Mr Obama's Republican opponents and forthcoming 2016 elections mean a combative year lies ahead where hot-button topics such as energy and health care are concerned.
But on the economic front, things are on the up and up, and Mr Obama isn't afraid to say so.
"Pick any metric that you want - America's resurgence is real. We are better off," Mr Obama said at a year-end press conference, before leaving for vacation in Hawaii.
Amid a recession in Japan and a near-stall in the eurozone, the world's largest economy is posting healthy results.
US growth surged to its highest level in 11 years in the third quarter with a five-per cent increase in the gross domestic product (GDP) between July and September, the Commerce Department said at the end of 2014.
Unemployment is below the six per cent mark and consumer confidence is at its highest level in nearly seven years.
It is against this backdrop that Mr Obama embarks on Wednesday on a series of stops in a ramp-up to his January 20 State of the Union address, in which the president sets forth his priorities for the coming year.
The president will deliver remarks Wednesday at a Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, where he plans to highlight the "resurgent" US automotive and manufacturing sectors.
At a high school in Phoenix, Arizona on Thursday, Mr Obama will announce new measures to help more people "achieve the American dream of owning a home." And on Friday, the president will make remarks at a university in Knoxville, Tennessee, about education and vocational training.
Mr Obama has seen a slight rebound in popularity seemingly linked to improved employment figures, as well as executive actions to overhaul aspects of America's immigration system and US plans to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba.
His approval rating had long hovered near the 40 per cent mark.
But according to the latest Gallup poll, Mr Obama's job approval recently came in at 48 per cent, the highest since August 2013.
In an interview with The Detroit News published Wednesday, the president highlighted decisions he took in the first weeks of his White House tenure in 2009 that allowed US auto manufacturers to "get back in the game."
Mr Obama noted that he chose to rescue Chrysler in March 2009, despite the objections of his advisers who pressed for focusing only on GM and Ford. The decision saved thousands of jobs.
Over the last several months, the White House has tirelessly emphasised Mr Obama's decisions upon arriving in office six years ago, when the economy was in an upheaval.
"He had to make some pretty politically unpopular decisions to rescue the American economy," said White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
"The result has been not just that we staved off a second Great Depression, but we've actually laid the groundwork for a stronger recovery that's actually the envy of the entire world." The claim begs the old question about how much real influence the president wields over the US economy.
"The standard answer among economists, at least when they aren't being political hacks, is: not much," said Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, before adding a slight caveat in Mr Obama's case.
"Is the president responsible for the accelerating recovery? No," Krugman, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote in the paper.
"Can we nonetheless say that we're doing better than we would be if the other party held the White House? Yes," he wrote, citing the impact of Mr Obama's stimulus package in particular.
Republicans say Mr Obama is playing deaf to the message sent by voters when they dealt a devastating blow to the president's fellow Democrats in November's mid-term elections.
Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate that has newly fallen under Republican control, acknowledged that the recent numbers are encouraging.
"After so many years of sluggish growth, we're finally starting to see some economic data that can provide a glimmer of hope," he said in Congress.
But he was also quick to highlight that "the uptick appears to coincide with the biggest political change of the Obama administration's long tenure in Washington: the expectation of a new Republican Congress." "So this is precisely the right time to advance a positive, pro-growth agenda," Mr McConnell added.