Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Obama: consoler in chief

By Eugene Robinson
In Tucson tonight, President Obama played the role that all presidents must play at times of great tragedy: consoler in chief. His speech at the memorial service for the victims of Saturday's massacre seemed not to come from a speechwriter's pen, but from the heart.

Asking whether it "helped" or "hurt" the president politically seems petty. After he described how Rep. Gabriel Giffords' husband, Mark, had just visited her and announced that "Gabby opened her eyes for the first time," politics vanished. At a moment of great sorrow, there was a glimpse of the kinder, gentler America that Obama described -- an America in which "we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds."

The most touching parts of the speech, for me, came near the end, when he talked about how families react on losing a parent or a spouse -- when he said that "in the fleeting time we have on this earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame -- but rather, how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better."

The parts of the speech that seemed to touch Obama most were the passages about Christina Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl who was killed Saturday. There was passion in his eyes when, talking about Christina, he challenged us to "do everything we can to make sure this country lives up to our children's expectations." He seemed moved when he imagined that "if there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today."

Obama, of course, has two daughters. Tonight he was father-in-chief as well.

By E.J. Dionne
President Obama spoke Wednesday night as the pastor in chief, not as a politician. His address in Tucson was highly personal, rooted in the biographies of the victims and in scripture, more about the country as a family than about government. It was neither therapeutic nor political and dealt only in passing with the roiling controversies that have divided left from right.

He spoke movingly about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her struggle for life. But the figure at the center of the speech, to whom he came back again and again, was nine-year old Christina Taylor Green, "an A student, a dancer, a gymnast and a swimmer."

He returned to her to teach a moral lesson - she saw life "through the eyes of a child, undimmed by cynicism or vitriol that we adults all too often just take for granted." And he closed by describing her simple wishes, including the hope to jump in rain puddles. "If there are rain puddles in heaven," the president said, "Christina is jumping in them today."

He did issue a call to civility, but pointedly took no sides on the controversy over the role of vitriolic politics in the tragedy. "And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse," he said, "let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility cased this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest discourse can face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that makes them proud."

"What we cannot do," he said at another point, "is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on each other." And then, twice, he repeated, "That we cannot do."

These and other calls to more respectful ways of doing politics - we must, he said, "make sure that we are talking with each other a way that heals, not in a way that wounds" - will probably draw the lead sentences and headlines. But I came away thinking much more about the speech's religious and (if it's not too grand a word to use) existential moments.

"We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world," he said at one point, "but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us." Obama often touched on spiritual themes before he became president, and then largely backed away from them in his first two years of office. In struggling to find hope in tragedy, he was brought back to that ground Wednesday night.

Arizona memorial: it's not about politics
By Jennifer Rubin
The memorial service in Arizona was in many ways representative of our noisy, increasingly religious and decent country. I didn't care for the raucous-like atmosphere. The Native American chief went on too long and sounded like he had swallowed "Political Correctness for Dummies." But that is minor, and ultimately irrelevant.

What mattered? In time of crisis, public figures return to scripture. Janet Napolitano read from the Old Testament, Eric Holder from the New Testament. It was entirely appropriate, and a reminder that in the age of pop psychology and New Age lingo, nothing fills the heart and the soul like scripture.

As for the president, I was immediately struck by how old and gray he looks. He did not smirk and play to the crowd as Bill Clinton surely would have done. His sober demeanor lessened the cringe-sensation when the assembled hooted and cheered.

As for the president's speech, it was one of his better moments because it avoided politics. Now, he did stray into campaign shouting mode when he said "I have just come from the University Medical Center, just a mile from here, where our friend Gabby courageously fights to recover even as we speak. And I can tell you this -- she knows we're here and she knows we love her and she knows that we will be rooting for her throughout what will be a difficult journey." And similarly when he celebrated the citizen heroes of the day, he likewise did the staccato shout bit. Still, it was in celebration of others, not him.

As for the substance of the speech, this was the most meaningful passage:

You see, when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations -- to try to impose some order on the chaos, and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we've seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health systems. Much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized -- at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

Scripture tells us that there is evil in the world, and that terrible things happen for reasons that defy human understanding. In the words of Job, "when I looked for light, then came darkness." Bad things happen, and we must guard against simple explanations in the aftermath.

For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack. None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man's mind. So yes, we must examine all the facts behind this tragedy. We cannot and will not be passive in the face of such violence. We should be willing to challenge old assumptions in order to lessen the prospects of violence in the future.

It was pretty close to a rebuke to his liberal supporters. He was telling them, and everyone, that the entire process of casting blame for a lunatic's crime is foolhardy and simply wrong. He deserves credit for that. This sounded like much of what I and others have been writing since Saturday: "And if, as has been discussed in recent days, their deaths help usher in more civility in our public discourse, let's remember that it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy, but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to our challenges as a nation, in a way that would make them proud."

I will have more later. But one can't help recognize the contrast between the adult voices (the cabinet officials, the college president and the president) and a babble of immature wolves, baying at the moon and spinning untruths to propel their own agendas.Obama reminded the country that "what we can't do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another.
As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility. Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let us use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together." Couldn't have said it better myself.

'Golden Voice' Ted Williams Headed to Rehab

Homeless Man Turned Announcer Admits to Drinking Again on 'Dr. Phil'

Williams' announcement came less than a day after he was briefly detained by police in Hollywood. A disturbance report was made after Williams and his daughter, Janey, got into a heated argument Monday night at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel and Spa, according to the Associated Press.

"It was minor. Both parties were angry but there were no signs of visible abuse," Los Angeles police Officer Catherine Massey said Tuesday. She said the two "were brought in, calmed down, talked to and released" and she did not know the nature of the argument.

Williams' spots for MSNBC's "Lean Forward" campaign begin airing late last week.

Ted Williams Reunited With His Mother After 10 Years
Just a few days ago, Williams, who seemed to be turning his life around, had reunited with his mother. He had not seen her in ten years.

"It was just a dream come true because, like I said, if anything transpired out of this whole madness that I am going through I did want this to happen, to be here, to be with her," Williams said on "Good Morning America." "I am still lost for words sometimes."

And "madness" is an understatement. Since the video of Williams went viral online, offers from tons of organizations from Kraft Foods to MTV poured in.

Williams was getting a second chance most convicted felons don't get. He has had several past arrests for theft, robbery, forgery and drug possession. His mother, Julia Williams, now 90, was ready to throw in the towel.

"I just gave up and I said I just can't go through no more," she said on "GMA." But Julia Williams said she relied heavily on her church, which she has been attending since 1957, to cope with the downward spiral of her son's life.

"Oh, I've been through this lots, but I have survived through going to church, I have survived," she said. "God has looked over me all the way and he's helped me through because I didn't have anybody. My husband died ten years ago." Ted Williams said he was embracing his faith more.

"Somebody gave me a date book, a planner and it closed with 2010 and started with 2011," he said. "And in the 2010 area I was getting ready to write 'another year wasted,' but something came into me, the Lord talked to me and said, 'Wait a minute, in 2010 you found me.'"

He decided to accept the offers of three companies -- Kraft Foods, MSNBC and the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team. He has already recorded a Kraft commercial and voiceovers for MSNBC, and was looking forward to the house the Cavs offered him.

Julia Williams left her son last week with one last piece of advice:

"Just get your life together, and don't leave God out," she said. "Get it together, forget about the old friends and the things you used to do with the old friends, leave it out there. Have a new life."

Facing Challenge, Obama Returns to Unity Theme

TUCSON — When President Obama took the stage here Wednesday to address a community — and a nation — traumatized by Saturday’s killings, it invited comparisons to President George W. Bush’s speech to the nation after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the memorial service President Bill Clinton led after the bombing of a federal office building killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995.

But Mr. Obama’s appearance presented a deeper challenge, reflecting the tenor of his times. Unlike those tragedies — which, at least initially, united a mournful country and quieted partisan divisions — this one has, in the days since the killings, had the opposite effect, inflaming the divide.

It was a political reality Mr. Obama seemed to recognize the moment he took the stage. And it was one he seemed determine to address, with language that recalled a central part of Mr. Obama’s appeal as a presidential candidate in 2008.

He called for an end to partisan recriminations, and a unity that has seemed increasingly elusive as each day has brought more harsh condemnations from the left and the right, starting here in Arizona but rippling across the nation. “What we cannot do is use this tragedy as one more occasion to turn on one another,” he said. “That we cannot do. As we discuss these issues, let each of us do so with a good dose of humility.”

While some on the left sought to link the killing to the Tea Party movement or to heated speech from prominent Republicans like Sarah Palin, Mr. Obama pointedly noted that there was no way to know why the gunman opened fire, killing 6 people and injuring 14, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

“For the truth is that none of us can know exactly what triggered this vicious attack,” he said. “None of us can know with any certainty what might have stopped those shots from being fired, or what thoughts lurked in the inner recesses of a violent man’s mind.”

On a day when Ms. Palin posted a video accusing commentators of committing “blood libel” by suggesting her commentary had enabled the crime, Mr. Obama — speaking at times like a political leader, at times like a preacher — urged his audience and the nation to avoid recriminations, to “honor the fallen” by moving forward and by “making sure we align our values with our actions.”

“At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized, at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do, it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds,” Mr. Obama said.

When it comes to being emotive, Mr. Obama may never match Mr. Clinton or Mr. Bush. His voice sometimes wavered, but he is not the kind of leader whose eyes moisten at public events. Yet these are tougher times and he was, here and across the country, speaking to a tougher audience.

Even as it began, some conservative commentators were posting comments criticizing the memorial service for being overly partisan and more like a pep rally, and there were some boos in the hall when Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, spoke. Those reactions would have been hard to imagine, say, in the days after the Oklahoma City bombing.

“Last time there was uniform revulsion,” said Don Baer, who was the chief speechwriter in the White House for Mr. Clinton in 1995 and helped write Mr. Clinton’s speech. “This time, in the interest of condemning vitriol, all sides have become vitriolic. In some ways the country is more in need of a unifying voice that says, ‘Enough already.’ ”

Mr. Baer said that made the demands on Mr. Obama different than those on Mr. Clinton, and made Mr. Obama’s return to the language of his campaign — the call for an end to partisan rancor — so logical.

“The best message for President Obama,” Mr. Baer said, “is the one that brought him to national attention from the start: That there is not a red America or a blue America but a United States of America.”

The speeches Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton gave were seen as turning points in their presidencies. Wednesday night’s event seemed less about Mr. Obama’s presidency and more about the state of this country. His calls during the campaign for an end to brutal partisanship appeared to carry little weight these past two years in Washington. There is no way to know if his similar call on Wednesday, under tragic circumstances, will have more traction.

Sarah Palin's 'blood libel' comment overshadows a calibrated message

Sarah Palin's statement Wednesday in response to the Tucson shootings, in which she has found herself at the center of a debate over civility in political discourse, was crafted as both a defense of her own actions and a strike against her critics - but reaction to the statement was dominated by a fresh controversy over her use of the phrase "blood libel."

With the exception of those words, the former Alaska governor's statement was remarkable for its careful calibration - replete with references to "the greatness of our country" and other rhetoric likely to resonate with her base. It was also notable that Palin, known for her often-controversial impromptu tweets, waited four days after the shootings and then released a professionally produced, polished seven-minute video in which she read from a script.

Palin spoke of the "enduring strength of our Republic," described the Constitution as a "sacred charter of liberty" and referred to the "genius" of the founding fathers. "America must be stronger than the evil we saw displayed last week," she said. "We are better than the mindless finger-pointing we endured in the wake of the tragedy."

In Palin's version of events, her controversial actions represented common cause with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who a few days before being critically wounded in the mass shooting had read the First Amendment on the House floor.

"Acts of monstrous criminality stand on their own," Palin said in the statement. "They begin and end with the criminals who commit them, not collectively with all the citizens of a state, not with those who listen to talk radio, not with maps of swing districts used by both sides of the aisle, not with law-abiding citizens who respectfully exercise their First Amendment rights at campaign rallies, not with those who proudly voted in the last election."

She went on to say: "Within hours of a tragedy unfolding, journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn. That is reprehensible."

It is not at all clear that Palin intended to use the term "blood libel" in its full historical context. The phrase refers to a centuries-old anti-Semitic slander - the false charge that Jews use the blood of Christian children for rituals - that has been used as an excuse for persecution. The phrase was first used in connection with response to the Arizona shootings in an opinion piece in Monday's Wall Street Journal and has been picked up by others on the right.

While Palin did not explain her decision to use such historically fraught imagery, it would be recognized by religious voters, including the social conservatives who constitute such an important part of her following.

Palin has come under criticism because a map on her Web site during the midterm elections showed districts of congressional Democrats she had targeted for defeat marked with cross hairs. Giffords, whose district was one of those 20, had publicly complained that this was an invitation to violence.

There is no evidence at this point that the suspected gunman, Jared Loughner, was influenced by Palin or any other political figure.

Tim Crawford, the treasurer for Palin's political action committee, said Palin is "her own best spokesperson and she wanted to talk about this."

"The reason we did the video was we wanted the statement in total out there. We wanted the video to be seen in its entirety," he said.

Palin's statement comes as President Obama is headed to Tucson to speak at a service for the victims, and guarantees that her perspective will be part of the story line of the day.

With the exception of the phrase "blood libel," its careful timing and deliberate language also represent a departure from her previous attention-getting Facebook posts and tweets, many of which were reflexive spasms to even small criticisms.

On Thanksgiving, for instance, as most of the nation was still sleepily digesting turkey dinners, she issued an angry blast at the media. It was an apparent reaction to the fact that she herself had been ridiculed for a slip of the tongue in which she referred to North Korea as South Korea.

"The one-word slip occurred yesterday during one of my seven back-to-back interviews wherein I was privileged to speak to the American public about the important, world-changing issues before us," Palin wrote. "If the media had bothered to actually listen to all of my remarks on Glenn Beck's radio show, they would have noticed that I refer to South Korea as our ally throughout, that I corrected myself seconds after my slip-of-the-tongue, and that I made it abundantly clear that pressure should be put on China to restrict energy exports to the North Korean regime."

Those kinds of outbursts could destroy a presidential campaign, and stand as a stark contrast to the statement that Palin released Wednesday.

The new level of political professionalism to her approach - if that indeed is what this represents - also might not be merely a coincidence in its timing.

Republican operatives report that Palin has been calling around in recent weeks to seek advice not only on whether but how she should run for president in 2012. This statement might suggest she is not only seeking that counsel, but taking it as well.

2010 Ties 2005 as Warmest Year on Record Worldwide

WASHINGTON (AP) — It's a tie: Last year equaled 2005 as the warmest year on record, government climate experts reported Wednesday.

The average worldwide temperature was 1.12 degrees Fahrenheit (0.62 degree Celsius) above normal last year. That's the same as six years ago, the National Climatic Data Center announced.

Climate experts have become increasingly concerned about rising global temperatures over the last century. Most atmospheric scientists attribute the change to gases released into the air by industrial processes and gasoline-burning engines.

In addition, the Global Historical Climatology Network said Wednesday that last year was the wettest on record. Rain and snowfall patterns varied greatly around the world.

"The warmth this year reinforces the notion that we are seeing climate change," said David Easterling, chief of scientific services at the climatic data center. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, he noted. The exception was 1998, which is the third warmest year on record going back to 1880.

Easterling said the data "unequivocally" disproves claims that climate warming ended in 2005.

The temperature readings are collected at land stations and from ships and buoys at sea. The "normal" reading they use is the average worldwide temperature for the 20th century, which was 57.0 degrees Fahrenheit.

Temperatures over land surfaces were the warmest on record last year, averaging 1.80 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, while ocean temperatures were the third warmest on record at 0.88 degrees above average.

A La Nina condition took effect at the last half of the year, marked by below normal temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean.

While it was the wettest year on record, Easterling declined to link warmer temperatures with the unusual moisture, commenting that much more research would be needed in that area.

Other findings in the annual climate report included:

— There were just seven named storms and three hurricanes in the Pacific, the fewest since the mid-1960s. On the other hand the Atlantic hurricane season was very active with 19 named storms and 12 hurricanes.

— Arctic sea ice cover was the third smallest since records began in 1979, trailing only 2007 and 2008. The ice cover is considered a marker of climate change as global warming tends to be seen first at the poles.

— Despite the overall warmth, 2010 saw record cold and snow in January and February in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly eastern North America.

— From mid-June to mid-August an unusually strong jet stream shifted northward, bringing an unprecedented two-month heat wave to Russia and adding to devastating floods in Pakistan.

— For the contiguous United States it was the 14th consecutive year with above average temperatures.

SARAH PALIN IS MORE STUPID THAN I THOUGHT! Use of the words 'blood libel' to defend herself!

Blood libel (also blood accusation refers to a false accusation or claim that religious minorities, in European contexts almost always Jews, murder children to use their blood in certain aspects of their religious rituals and holidays.
Historically, these claims have–alongside those of well poisoning and host desecration–been a major theme in European persecution of Jews.

The libels typically allege that Jews require human blood for the baking of matzos for Passover. The accusations often assert that the blood of Christian children is especially coveted, and historically blood libel claims have often been made to account for otherwise unexplained deaths of children.
In some cases, the alleged victim of human sacrifice has become venerated as a martyr, a holy figure around whom a martyr cult might arise. A few of these have been even canonized as saints, like Gavriil Belostoksky.

In Jewish lore, blood libels were the impetus for the creation in the 16th century of the Golem of Prague by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. Many popes have either directly or indirectly condemned the blood accusation, and no pope has ever sanctioned it.
These libels have persisted among some segments of Christians to the present time

Insanity Defense Harder Now Than for Hinckley

WASHINGTON (AP) — In an earlier time, the deeply troubled past of Jared Loughner might have led his lawyers to mount an insanity defense. But that would be harder now, because Congress raised the bar for that claim after a jury found John Hinckley innocent by reason of insanity for shooting President Ronald Reagan.

And the federal system is not alone in posing high hurdles to insanity defenses. State officials plan to charge Loughner as well, and Arizona law does not allow a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. Instead, a jury can return a verdict of guilty, but insane — an outcome that provides for imprisonment if the convict recovers enough to leave a mental institution.

Neither the Justice Department nor the local prosecutor has yet said whether Loughner will face a possible death penalty on charges he killed a federal judge, a congressional aide and four other people in the rampage that also wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. But federal prosecutors already are moving forward with charges, and veteran lawyers anticipate they will ask for him to be executed.

Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall also said at least two factors weigh in favor of a death penalty trial at the state level — multiple victims and, with the death of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, a victim under the age of 15.

Many witnesses and ample evidence strongly suggest the government will have no trouble placing the gun in Loughner's hands at the Tucson shopping center where the shootings took place. Internet postings and material investigators said they found at Loughner's home suggest he had prior contact with Giffords and might have been planning something along the lines of Saturday's attack.

Yet comments from friends and former classmates, bolstered by Loughner's own Internet postings, also have painted a picture of a social outcast with almost indecipherable beliefs steeped in mistrust and paranoia.

On Monday, Loughner made a brief appearance in court, where he acknowledged the charges against him and was ordered held without bail.

Before the attempted assassination of Reagan, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz said in a telephone interview Monday, "this would be a clear case of insanity, because the premeditation would not be seen as undercutting insanity, it would be part of demonstrating insanity." But under the post-Hinckley rules, he said, "that's a very uphill battle."

Public outrage over the jury's verdict in Hinckley's trial prompted Congress to make it much more difficult to establish that claim in federal criminal trials. Among the changes, the burden of proof over insanity has been shifted to the defense.

Arizona also has modified the insanity defense, LaWall said. "So the person is held at a state mental hospital, and if sanity somehow comes back, he's transferred to prison, not just let go," LaWall said.

The case against Loughner is at an early stage, as is his defense.

His lawyers probably will spend their time making the strongest possible argument to dissuade prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty. "That's the task of his lawyer in the first instance," said Neal Sonnett, a Miami defense lawyer.

Among arguments that could be made is that, if not insane, Loughner was mentally impaired. That argument concedes that a defendant bears some responsibility for what he has done but lacks the guilt necessary to face the death penalty. The compromised state of mind sometimes is referred to as "diminished capacity."

Dershowitz predicted that federal officials will seek death for Loughner no matter what his lawyers argue. "The prosecution will seek the maximum punishment in a case like this," he said.

A veteran of death cases, San Diego attorney Judy Clarke, led the team that represented Loughner at his court appearance Monday. Clarke succeeded in negotiating a guilty plea and a life sentence for the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski. She also helped spare the life of serial bomber Eric Rudolph and Susan Smith, convicted of drowning her two little boys.

Only Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and two others have been executed in the federal system since the federal death penalty was reinstituted in 1988. Sixty other inmates are under federal death sentences, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

If there is a trial and guilty verdict, discussion of Loughner's mental state will again be a factor in a separate court hearing before the jury deliberates over a sentence.

Even if Loughner were to avoid a federal death sentence, he still could face state murder charges that carry the possibility of execution, lawyers said.

"It's often the case that both jurisdictions would file charges and then sort it out later," said John Canby of Phoenix, a board member of the state association of criminal defense lawyers. "If for some reason, the feds didn't want to go for the death penalty or didn't get it, it would be available at the state level perhaps."

Loughner is charged with one federal count of attempted assassination of a member of Congress, two counts of killing an employee of the federal government and two counts of attempting to kill a federal employee.

LaWall said her office would handle all the other charges against Loughner, including for four deaths of people who were not federal employees, more than a dozen wounded and dozens more who were in the line of fire but not injured. Her staff is researching whether state charges have to wait until the federal prosecution is complete.

"If it takes two years to prosecute in the federal system, I don't want to make all these witnesses and victims wait," she said.

LaWall said the lead prosecutor from her office on the case has handled dozens of capital trials and that a team of prosecutors would weigh whether to seek the death penalty.

AP Poll: Obama, GOP Improve Their Standing

WASHINGTON (AP) — Americans give higher marks to President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans after a holiday season of compromise paid dividends for both, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll.

At the start of the divided government era, the survey found that 53 percent of Americans approve of how Obama is doing his job, his best numbers since the divisive health care vote 10 months ago.

And, compared with just after the November elections, more now express confidence that Obama and the new Republican-controlled House can work together to solve the country's most urgent problems, chief among them the struggling economy.

"It's going to be difficult because there are some bleeding-heart liberals way over on the left and some uptight conservatives," said Spirit Fliege, 83, a Republican from Brentwood, Calif. "It's going to take someone who can operate very smoothly. Whether Obama can or not, we don't know."

Most people, according to the poll, now are putting their faith in Republicans to implement the changes needed to fix the economy. But a majority also now view the Democrats favorably, an oddity just two months after voters dealt Obama's party what he called "a shellacking" in congressional elections.

Still, despite expressing more optimism in certain areas, Americans are down on Congress itself. And roughly half express anger with American politics, while disappointment and frustration remain with politicians of all stripes.

"They're totally ignoring the people. They make all kinds of promises and put the shaft to the people," said Sandy Parton, 66, of Honey Grove, Texas. "I've seen them say one thing and do another."

The period during which the poll was conducted included last Saturday, when a shooting rampage in Arizona left six dead and several more injured, including a congresswoman, and touched off debate over the caustic nature of American politics.

The December lame-duck session of Congress left an imprint on Americans who had made it clear in November that they were tired of one-party rule in Washington and hungry for bipartisanship.

In a bow to that desire as 2010 ended, Obama struck a deal with Republicans to extend temporarily all the Bush-era tax cuts. And he has indicated a willingness to work with new House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on several other issues, including looming trade deals and the reauthorization of an education law.

Some people like what they see.

"He's doing the best he can with what he was handed," said Richard Cambell, 42, a truck driver from Rockingham, N.C., who says Obama deserves a second term.

The poll found that since the year began:

—Obama improved his job-performance rating by 6 percentage points, up from 47 percent just after the November elections. Disapproval is at 46 percent. He scored higher marks on handling the economy, too, as the unemployment rate edged down to 9.4 percent; 47 percent now approve, compared with 41 percent two months ago. And 59 percent view him favorably, while 40 percent view him unfavorably.

—Boehner became better known to the general public in his first foray on the political scene as a national leader. And impressions of him were about evenly divided, with 34 percent viewing him positively and 31 percent viewing him negatively.

—Republicans in Congress got a slight bump, too, though they are not nearly as popular as Obama. Now, 36 percent give them high marks, compared with 29 percent last fall. But the increase was driven entirely by people who identify themselves as Republicans. Support among independents did not change.

—On the question of whether Obama and Republicans can work in a bipartisan manner to solve what ails the country, 48 percent express some degree of optimism and 52 percent express some level of pessimism. It's an improvement from just after the elections, when 41 percent were confident and 58 percent were not.

—Democrats generally are back to being viewed in a positive light by most Americans — 53 percent favorable to 45 percent unfavorable. That's better than at any point during the height of the 2010 campaign. Views of the Republican Party are evenly split at 48 percent.

—More than half — 56 percent — say they are confident that the GOP can improve the economy, though slightly less — 51 percent — say they think Republicans in Congress will actually implement their campaign policy promises. And relatively few think Republicans in Congress understand the important short-term issues the country must focus on.

—People still aren't hot on Congress: 69 percent disapprove, 26 percent approve. And nearly 6 in 10 still say the nation is heading in the wrong direction.

—Democrats slightly improved their standing on most issues, most notably surpassing Republicans on handling the economy for the first time since June: 45 percent trust the Democrats to handle it, 40 percent the Republicans. Democrats also pulled even with Republicans on managing the federal budget deficit, and they expanded their advantage on handling health care.