WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama's approval rating is creeping upward. The U.S. economy is growing. And a flurry of aggressive executive actions on domestic and foreign policy have energized the West Wing.
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 to preview manufacturing, housing and education proposals that will be part of his Jan. 20 State of the Union address.
Not on Obama's schedule during his first work week 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 Republican leadership, but said 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.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky lawmaker who will now serve as Senate majority leader, suggested the veto threat showed the president hadn't learned the lessons of Democrats' drubbing in the midterm elections.
"But we can't afford to give up on him because he's going to be there until January 2017." McConnell told The Associated Press in an interview.
The Republican priority list for 2015 also 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.
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.
The president's team also attributes some of his improved standing to his willingness to 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.
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.
Associated Press writer Bruce Schreiner in Louisville, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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