WASHINGTON -- The strengthening economy is giving President Bush a boost with the public, just as postwar Iraq is becoming more of a liability.
If current trends continue, Bush may be looking to the economy to provide him with political strength to negate increasing doubts about his policies in Iraq. In recent months, his standing on Iraq, foreign policy and the terrorism fight provided a counterweight to his low standing on the ailing economy.
"We've seen a reversal," said Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "Right now, to many people's surprise, it looks like the economy is going his way and Iraq may be a trouble spot for him."
Public approval of Bush's handling of the economy has increased in several recent polls, notably the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, from 43 percent to 50 percent since the summer to 42 percent to 47 percent over the past month.
"When you get the economy moving up, the incumbent is the beneficiary," said Peter Hart, a pollster who helps produce the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll. "It helped Bill Clinton and it's now helping George Bush."
On the question of Iraq, approval for Bush is heading in the opposite direction. After months in which more than half approved of the president's handling of Iraq, a recent CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll showed disapproval at 54 percent and approval at 45 percent. In other polls, the public is about evenly divided on that question.
Bush's overall job approval ranges from 50 percent to the mid-50s in recent polls.
The big question about the economy is whether the improvements seen in recent economic reports have started hitting home with voters.
The economy is showing mixed signs of recovery: rapid growth that surprised most economists last quarter, indications the job market could be turning around, a rebound in the stock market over the past six months. But the nation has lost 2.3 million jobs, the turnaround in employment is uncertain and states hard hit by revenue losses are making deep cuts.
The shift in Bush's economic standing in the polls so far has been "no great shakes," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
"But it's the first time they have gone in a positive direction," Kohut said of recent polls. "That's a response to some really dramatic news. For that number to really rise, people have to begin to see the promise of better times fulfilled in their own lives and their own community."
Republican pollster Bill McInturff said a lasting economic turnaround starting now would be very good news for Bush.
"It's a lot easier to shut down concern about Iraq and foreign policy than to shut down concern about the economy," he said. "It's a very good indicator of our ability to re-elect the president."
Democrats are not ready to write off the economy as a strong issue for them.
"There's no question the economy is coming back," said Democratic strategist Jim Duffy. "But there are still a lot of jobs lost in the Midwest and the old Rust Belt. Both the economy and the war are still very problematic and tricky for him."