On the legislation rated most urgent -- cutting the budget deficit -- even a majority of Republican voters endorse Obama's approach of seeking tax hikes as well as spending cuts.
The survey underscores the quandary for the GOP as it debates the party's message in the wake of November election losses for the White House and U.S. Senate. Now, just 22% of Americans, nearly a record low, consider themselves Republicans. That compares with 32% who consider themselves Democrats, and 41% independents.
And those automatic spending cuts, known as sequesters, that are poised to take effect next week?
If no deal is reached to avert them, half of Americans say congressional Republicans will be more to blame. Less than a third would blame Obama first.
"On many of the issues, President Obama has staked out positions that seem to be closer to the public's thinking than the positions Republicans have staked out," said Michael Dimock, director of the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. The poll is the first in a new partnership between Pew and USA TODAY. "The challenge for him is in building the public's sense of immediacy on some of these issues, particularly on climate change and guns."
Republicans have the opposite challenge. "Their focus on the deficit is in tune with the public's priorities right now," he says. "Yet their positions are not quite in step with the kind of compromises that the public tells us they want to see."
To be sure, Obama faces his own challenges.
His approval ratings for handling seven specific issues are no better than lukewarm, ranging from a low of 34% on the deficit to a high of 46% on the situation in Afghanistan. On the central issue of managing the economy, 40% approve, 56% disapprove. Americans also continue to be deeply unhappy with the country's direction. By 2-to-1, (64%-31%), they are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the U.S.
Even so, those surveyed say by narrow margins that Obama has a better approach than congressional Republicans for dealing with the deficit and guns. By double digits, they favor his plans on immigration and climate change, including limits on emissions from power plants.
The president's overall job approval rating is 51%, a bit higher than it typically has been for the past three years. The approval rating for Republican congressional leaders is 25%. Democratic congressional leaders stand at 37%.
The poll of 1,504 adults was taken by land line and cell phone Feb. 13-18. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Since winning re-election, Obama has outlined bolder policies and taken a less compromising stance toward the GOP lawmakers he blames for frustrating much of his legislative agenda over the past two years. In his inaugural address and State of the Union speech, and at events across the country, he has focused more on generating public support for his proposals than on forging ties with Congress to negotiate them.
"I think there is a fresh start," said Sue Mohler, 60, of Nashua, N.H., who works in information support. An Obama supporter, she was among those surveyed. "It's not as big a fresh start as we would like it to be, but I'm hopeful. I'm not as pessimistic as I was." She's encouraged by signs that Republican leaders are ready to shift their stance on issues such as immigration.
For her part, Lynn Wright, 47, a homemaker from Richlands, N.C., doesn't appreciate Obama's more combative tone. "I really feel like his feet are very, very, very buried in the sand," she said. "I did not vote for him, but yes, he did win. But I just don't see how he can say, 'OK, this is my time now. You guys can't tell me no.' "